Across Australia, there are University Departments of Rural Health (UDRHs) located in rural and remote centres in every state and the Northern Territory. There are now 16 UDRHs, up from 12 just a few years ago. They are represented by long-time National Rural Health Alliance member, the Australian Rural Health Education Network (ARHEN). ARHEN has advocated for UDRHs for more than 20 years, working with UDRH Directors and government to help build a skilled and effective health workforce for rural and remote Australia.
The focus of UDRHs is mostly nursing, allied health and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workforce in rural and remote settings, including student placements, training, research and community engagement. The work of the UDRHs has been increasing and in 2018, the largest number of nursing and allied health students were trained by UDRHs and supported to undertake a rural or remote clinical placement. The figures, based on data submitted to the Australian Government Department of Health, highlight both the growth in the number of UDRHs and the continuing expansion of clinical placement opportunities available to students from across the spectrum of health disciplines. In 2018, nearly 14,000 nursing, midwifery and allied health students took part in clinical placement programs offered by the 16 UDRHs, an increase from 2017 by almost 22% for domestic students.
“UDRH placements expose students from universities around the country to the many career – and lifestyle – opportunities that exist in rural and remote regions,” ARHEN Chair Professor Lisa Bourke said. “Well-supported clinical placements are a vital part of the overall toolkit that UDRHs have developed to show students what life is like away from major cities where many have spent their lives.”
UDRHs offer students access to a range of opportunities, including service learning programs where students provide a service to a community in need of health programs. Service learning placements provide students with the opportunity to utilise their skills as a practitioner-in-training, working in student-led clinics, undertaking assessments in schools and aged care facilities, and developing and implementing life skills and health promotion programs in community settings. Students are also offered cross-cultural, inter-professional, simulation and other clinical training as well as high quality, low-cost accommodation. One student indicated after their UDRH service learning placement: “After this [placement] I have realised that I am capable and now have the confidence to go into the workforce.”
“Research tells us that positive clinical placement experiences in these locations mean students understand they have more career options and opportunities than they may have been aware of at the start of their course” Lisa said. “The increase means there are four times as many allied health and nursing students undertaking rural placements than a decade ago, made possible through additional Australian Government funding for UDRHs since 2016.”
While nursing and midwifery continue to be well-represented in UDRH programs, it’s the dramatic increase in the number of allied health students being exposed to rural practice over the last ten years that has been most noteworthy. “Placements – usually of four weeks or more - in disciplines such as physiotherapy, radiation science, occupational therapy, speech pathology, social work, pharmacy, dentistry, medical imaging and dietetics, mean students are well placed to work in rural and remote locations once they graduate,” said Mrs Christine Howard, Deputy Chair of ARHEN.
“The long term viability of these communities depends so much on their ability to attract highly trained health professionals” said Professor David Lyle, a member of the ARHEN Executive.
“UDRHs are continuing to produce a skilled workforce that are ready to work in rural and remote Australia,” Prof Bourke said.