The power of student placements in the bush

  • Charlotte Mullens with Flying Doctor Mobile Eye Care optometrist, Austin Tang, in Cann River, Victoria.

Charlotte Mullens with Flying Doctor Mobile Eye Care optometrist, Austin Tang, in Cann River, Victoria.

Last year, La Trobe University published a study in the Australian Journal of Rural Health exploring the reasons why Australian health graduates chose to pursue a career in a rural location. By examining data from the Australian Health Practitioners Regulation Agency (AHPRA), the authors of the study were able to determine two key predictors for graduates accepting jobs in rural areas: the graduate’s place of origin and where they undertook their work placements.

In other words, the study found that students who were from rural areas, and who completed at least part of their training in a rural area, were more likely to return to that community to work after graduation.

The findings of this study, and of similar studies that have sought to understand how rural communities can attract more healthcare professionals, have fed into the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) Victoria’s decision to expand its popular scholarship program in 2023.

Since 2012, RFDS Victoria has offered support to rural healthcare students through its Give Them Wings scholarship program. These scholarships have traditionally provided financial support, as well as the chance to spend a day with the organisation’s aeromedical crew. While these flight experiences have always been met with excitement, they have not always been beneficial in an educational sense.

As such, in an effort to help students gain more valuable work experience with RFDS Victoria, scholarship recipients will this year instead have the chance to spend up to a week on the road with a team relevant to their studies. This means that, for example, dental students can learn about the unique oral health needs of rural communities from the dentists working in the Flying Doctor Dental Clinic, and those studying to become speech pathologists can gather on-the-ground experience with the Flying Doctor Speech Therapy team in a rural Victorian town.

RFDS Victoria trialled a more in-depth work experience program in 2022, with one scholarship recipient, optometry student Charlotte Mullens, given the opportunity to join the Flying Doctor Mobile Eye Care team in Far East Gippsland for five days.

The highlight of [the scholarship] was definitely the on-road experience with [optometrist] Austin in Cann River and Goongerah,’ says Charlotte. ‘It was incredible to spend a week immersed in optometry and see the impact that outreach services have on patients.

‘My experience [with the Mobile Eye Care service] has inspired me even more and assured me that working in regional health care is my calling. I feel excited and thrilled about the opportunity to fulfil my purpose.’

RFDS Victoria believes that, in order to best support the rural health workforce, the organisation needs to contribute its expertise to developing and training the next generation of healthcare professionals.

‘Until you actually work in a rural setting, it can be hard to truly understand the impact a strong rural healthcare workforce can have on the lives of Victorians living outside of metropolitan areas,’ says Melanie Trivett, General Manager of Primary Health Care at RFDS Victoria. ’While some of our applicants may have seen or heard media reports of the dire state of health care in rural locations, the chance to work alongside a professional providing care in smaller communities can show students how resourceful, creative and collaborative our rural workforces need to be.’

While there are of course many other reasons why people choose, or choose not, to live and work in rural communities, it is vital that more healthcare students are exposed to the real impact a robust rural healthcare workforce can have on rural and remote communities. Encouraging students to take up placements in these areas can ensure that more graduates understand the power they have to enact real change in Victoria's rural health outcomes.

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