Ensuring a sustainable rural health workforce that meets the needs of remote, rural and regional communities in New South Wales (NSW) offers both challenges and opportunities. In the Western, Far West and Snowy Valleys regions of NSW a new, collaborative framework is being trialled to address primary health care priorities in five locations. Its purpose is to improve access to local health care and provide better continuity of care for rural patients. The approach is replicable and, if successful, could be valuable elsewhere in NSW, other parts of Australia and internationally.
When it comes to resolving rural health challenges, there is no easy fix. Every community is different. This understanding lies at the heart of Collaborative Care – an exciting new program developed as a result of ongoing partnerships between Western NSW, Far Western NSW and Murrumbidgee Local Health Districts, Western NSW and Murrumbidgee Primary Health Networks and NSW Rural Doctors Network (RDN). The project is being coordinated by RDN and received support from the Australian Government Department of Health in the 2021 Federal Budget.
‘At its core, Collaborative Care is about working together to develop shared solutions to shared challenges, such as the recruitment and retention of GPs and health practitioners,’ explains Dr Estrella Lowe, Community Workforce Manager – Rural Engagement at NSW Rural Doctors Network.
‘Its strength lies in bringing communities together in partnership to co-design improvements.’
The Collaborative Care Program integrates existing resources to deliver services, increasing community engagement in service planning. The program will build a better understanding of the factors that influence the recruitment and retention of health professionals. In this way, the program will support more sustainable services that meet the specific needs of each community.
Collaborative Care is an extension of RDN’s town-based health planning approach, which has proven successful for more than 30 years in supporting community-orientated health workforce planning. It also integrates the shared experiences of other partnership projects in the region.
These experiences have demonstrated how area-based partnerships can result in more effective use of available resources – a finding backed by international research. Successful outcomes to date include a local health district-led process testing a different way to employ staff and share resources across small towns. This has improved access to primary care and provides continuity with regular clinical staff rather than relying on short-term locums. The creation of positions co-funded by multiple partner organisations to increase nursing and mental health support in western NSW has also been well received.
The Collaborative Care Program takes these learnings and goes one step further, by expanding local partnerships, assessing access to services from the community perspective, and working towards improving experiences of care for the patient, whole of community and providers.
‘We are breaking new ground by investing in sub-regional models of primary care to provide local solutions and to test how these new approaches can address perennial rural health challenges across the nation,’ Regional Health Minister and Member for Parkes, Mark Coulton, said in a media release in October 2020.
The program received government funding in March this year and is now assembling the working groups and information required to refine the co-design planning process. This involves consultations in each location to gain a better understanding of the local context.
‘Our experience has taught us that charging in with cookie-cutter solutions doesn’t work in rural NSW. This process will take time,’ said Dr Lowe.
‘Key to success is ensuring that this process makes the space to listen, while also continuing to move forward to implement practical solutions. We’d like to thank all the individuals and organisations who have given their time to contribute to this process.’