From page to practice: A lifelong quest for rural health empowerment

  • Dr Rebecca McGowan seeing a young patient
    Dr Rebecca McGowan seeing a young patient
  • LifeVest Health Promotion Program in action
    LifeVest Health Promotion Program in action

At the age of 12, I read a life changing book published by the World Health Organisation, called “Where there is no Doctor”.  Written by Dr David Werner, it provided easy to understand information about disease and many medical conditions, with practical solutions as to how to manage and treat a wide array of illness. The illustrations were simple and engaging, all with a strong focus on prevention and a “can do” attitude. I loved it!  Growing up on a farm, I was used to blood and guts and had an aptitude for science. Reading this book gave me a strong incentive to study hard and become a doctor to return to practice in my rural region as then, like now, we continue to have a shortage of doctors.  It is now over 40 years since I began my medical studies and I have enjoyed working as a GP for several decades in the rural community where I grew up. I continue to have a firm commitment to improving the health and wellbeing of those who live in rural and regional Australia, but I have seen the need for change and acted on it by creating my own business LifeVest to provide health programs focused on prevention. 

Since 2015, I have developed and delivered many successful health promotion programs in person and online to community groups, including First Nations groups, local manufacturing companies in my area, and government organisations. This has been a mixture of volunteer and paid work.  I have helped many people to improve their health literacy and become more empowered about their health. Speaking to a room of 10 or 100 people, or 300 people online has shown to be as impactful if not more so, then the 1:1 ratio of when a patient sees a GP. 

Statistically, it is known that 28% of all Australians live in Rural and Remote areas however their health is in serious decline. With higher rates of mortality, illness, hospitalisations and a shortage of GP’s, there is a significant health inequality in rural Australia.  I see the need for change in the way medicine is practiced. As GP’s are a scare resource and expensive for a lot of people, it is now longer viable to rely on people going to their GP for regular health advice prior to “getting sick”. There is also significant competition in this space from non-medical people providing dubious health advice on the internet.   It is vitally important that there are more proactive approaches to improving the health of those living in the country, given by qualified medical professionals. This includes medical professionals being able to embrace online health delivery via in person or online programs to their community, webinars, and social media (see my Instagram drrmcgowan or Facebook Dr Rebecca McGowan for inspiration!) The old “if you can’t beat them, join them”. 

80% of all the causes of chronic health problems are preventable.  Prevention makes sound economic, social, and business sense.  Prevention focused approaches such as the programs that I run, have a large range of benefits, including reduced health costs for Australian Government, improved workforce participation, and recruitment in the country. Practical knowledge of physical and mental health, and long-lasting behavioural change assist rural communities to thrive in good health.  Over 70% of participants in the LifeVest programs, have reported increased health literacy, improved healthy lifestyle habits, and much better relationships with their own GP’s and the health system.  I am regularly approached in my own town by people or their families who have attended the programs, discussing how they have improved their health.  The original book of “Where there is no Doctor” still sits proudly on my bookshelf in my study, it’s teachings still relevant today. 

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