Australians who live in rural and remote communities are identified as having poorer health outcomes when compared to those who reside in cities. For example, health data show that people who live in rural and remote areas have higher rates of hospitalisations, death and injury. They also experience poorer access to, and use of, primary healthcare services, than those living in major cities.
With these health inequities in mind, the Melbourne School of Health Sciences (MSHS) and the University of Melbourne Department of Rural Health have joined forces to improve student education and experiences of rural health, and to actively engage with rural communities to build a sustainable interprofessional approach to clinical education and workforce development.
In February 2022, the collaboration was launched in Wangaratta – bringing together practitioners, health leaders, students, academics and researchers to find ways to improve rural health placements and boost the local health workforce. Although there has been a long history of individual professional disciplines developing placements, and educational and research initiatives with our rural partners, this initiative marks the development of a deliberate long-term plan focused on interprofessional learning and practice.
A starting point for the collaboration has been an exploration of the contribution of rural clinical placements to student learning, health systems and direct patient care. Students who presented at the February forum talked about unique opportunities to learn more about rural health, the variety of experiences that were open to them in each of the disciplines, and their work across primary health care, hospitals and specialist services.
Rural health requires skilled health workers who can work collaboratively. Educating students and supporting them to consider working in rural and remote areas can be a hard ask! Challenges can include lack of access to affordable accommodation, social isolation and limited access to skilled clinical supervisors.
The conversations and opportunities to interact resulted in an action plan to build and sustain our work. The work is led by Professor Marie Gerdtz, Head of Nursing, with colleagues from both schools working together to make a difference. This work will include:
- Developing a sustainable approach to delivery of pre-placement information for students, including ensuring our website is comprehensive and meets the needs of MSHS students Going Rural Health.
- Supporting the development of a CPD program and community of practice for clinical supervisors located in rural locations.
- Monitoring and evaluating MSHS rural placements and engagement activities.
- Creating and evaluating innovative clinical placements, including interprofessional learning and practice, service learning and student employment models.
- Consultation with Indigenous communities.
Service learning placements are an important initiative already underway. Students use their discipline-focused skills while at the same time gaining a better understanding of their professional and community roles. An example of this work is having students from nursing and speech pathology undertaking their field education at the Wangaratta Special School.
Professor Bruce Thompson, Head of the School of Health Sciences, recently launched a strategic plan which has as its goal: ‘We are here to discover, empower and transform global health and wellbeing’. The goal is built on the five strategic pillars illustrated.
Both schools are committed to working together to create opportunities for students in audiology, nursing, optometry, physiotherapy, social work and speech pathology to undertake rural placements. From this base we will develop opportunities for research projects and educational and professional development. This will also feed into the courses we teach at our Melbourne campus, ensuring that our teaching and research programs remain aware and address the health needs of people in rural, regional and remote areas of Australia.