As one of the largest providers of higher education to regional Victoria, La Trobe University is proud of its close relationship with the communities it serves. That commitment came to the fore during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the University prioritised support for its regional health partners as they activated external disaster management plans in response to the public health emergency.
La Trobe’s regional campuses – spanning Albury-Wodonga, Bendigo, Mildura and Shepparton – are part of the local community and work in partnership with regional health providers. It has allowed our research and teaching staff, as well as students, to adjust to and support the local needs of regional health agencies. Picking up the phone to ask how we could assist enabled University staff to support our colleagues effectively and in ways that were important to them. This personalised approach contributed to the sense of community level response to COVID 19. Health services were not working on their own. We were all in this together.
The University worked closely with Bendigo Health, Mildura Base Public Hospital, GV Health in Shepparton and Albury-Wodonga Health to mobilise resources and support needs, particularly through the provision of infrastructure, medical equipment and education.
We provided a building, to Bendigo Health for staff to undertake simulations, provide workspace for executive staff and created the town’s drive-through COVID-19 testing site. We donated personal protective equipment (including 3D-printing 500 face shields) and loaned specialist medical equipment to our larger regional health partners, including syringe pumps, non-tough thermometers and respiratory equipment.
“The La Trobe University leadership team and broader staffing group have been proactive, professionally supportive and community focussed in a time that must be very professionally challenging for the tertiary education sector,” said Robyn Lindsay, Executive Director Clinical Operations at Bendigo Health.
Supporting the developing and existing workforce has been a priority. Working with clinical partners, nursing students continued their placements throughout the pandemic, ensuring their timely course completion the continuation of our rural workforce pipeline. Social work students completed placements with the contract tracing team. New instances of the Registered Undergraduate Student of Nursing Model were created with partners to enable local employment for third year undergraduate students, bringing more nursing skills into the local health system.
And, as part of the Federal Government’s COVID-19 response, the University offered a range of new short courses meeting the need to upskill and reskill the health workforce. The response was overwhelming, with more than 300 students enrolling in the University’s Graduate Certificate in Mental Health in 2020. A Graduate Certificate in Digital Health and Re-Entry to Practice Program for Registered Nurses were also created. Of equal importance were educational offerings tailored to assist healthcare professionals that were not be in a direct care provision role, but still in need of support. An example of this was a health focused instance of the La Trobe Business School Leaders in Lockdown Program.
The responsive partnership approach tested by COVID-19 is a model that can serve for other university and industry partnerships. As we face the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, and a growing impact on regional Victoria, we are building on our initial work to continue to support our health industry partners in our areas of strength.
How have rural and regional healthcare workers navigated the pandemic?
By Dr Giselle Roberts
When it comes to health, rural and regional Australians face barriers to equity, access and inclusion. Add a pandemic to the mix and resources, along with resilience, are stretched to the limit. Researchers in the La Trobe Rural Health School at La Trobe University are exploring the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the rural and regional healthcare workforce in Victoria’s Loddon Mallee region.
“The rural and regional health workforce confronts a different set of challenges to their metropolitan counterparts,” explained lead researcher, Associate Professor Mark McEvoy.
“Capacity and specialisation deficits mean that there are less resources to meet business-as-usual healthcare, let alone public health emergencies like the pandemic. This situation is compounded by additional environmental adversities, such as drought or bushfire.”
The study will provide an unprecedented exploration of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the rural and regional healthcare workforce. The focus will be on health and wellbeing, including the physical and emotional wellbeing of workers, their quality of life, cognitive and social function, and lifestyle.
Researchers are still recruiting healthcare workers from the Loddon Mallee region to participate in the study which will identify the resilience strategies – at the individual, organisational and community level – that lead to better physical and mental health outcomes for healthcare workers.
“This research will provide an evidence base on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the health and wellbeing of the rural and regional healthcare workers,” said Mark.
“We hope our findings will lead to the development of resilience interventions and policy that will improve the rural and regional response to future public health emergencies.”