Rural realities and revelations: lessons from the Kimberley

  • Large group of students out on a dry lake bed
  • Some students seated at a table working on art projects
Rural Health West

An eight-day stay in the Kimberley has proven to be an eye-opener for second year University of Notre Dame Australia – Fremantle medical students, Oliver and Yoveena. The pair were two of nearly 90 students who travelled to the Shire of Broome and Derby in the West Kimberley as part of the annual Kimberley Remote Area Health Placement Program that takes place each August.

Self-confessed city-slicker Yoveena admitted to experiencing some culture shock in the first few days of the placement.

“After two days though, I had settled in and had met half the town! I had never really considered working rurally, however now I think I would like to spend some time working in or with a remote community. Even if I end up pursuing a city-based speciality, I am now aware of opportunities to deliver paediatric and cardiology care into remote communities via a FIFO service.”

Oliver had previously travelled to Halls Creek and Wyndham, so had some idea of what to expect. However, he confessed his placement at the Yiramalay Studio School taught him the true meaning of remote.

“Yiramalay is about 90 minutes from Fitzroy Crossing and all students and staff live on site. That includes the teachers, the chefs – who do a great job at providing everyone with three balanced meals a day – and the mentors. In the afternoons, the mentors will take the kids down the road for fishing or to visit watering holes… but ‘down the road’ might mean a 40km drive!,” Oliver said.

“While there, one student needed to get to Perth for orthopaedic surgery, which took days of travel from such a remote location. Not to mention the challenges of arranging the post-op care.

“We also took several kids into Fitzroy Crossing one day for health checks, which were handled by a solo medical officer who was juggling GP-type appointments alongside anything and everything else that came through the door on that day.

“Seeing the level of isolation first hand was completely different than knowing that there are remote communities and towns. It really highlighted the discrepancy in equity of health access and availability.”

The University of Notre Dame Australia – Fremantle’s Kimberley Remote Area Health Placement Program gives second-year medical students an opportunity to engage with, and learn from, people from the remote West Kimberley region to inform the care they provide once they start to practise medicine.

The curriculum requirement forms a vital part of the student’s medical education and seeks to give them a true appreciation of the challenges and highlights of living in the Kimberley, and the spirit and resilience of the people who live in some of the remote locations in Australia.

The program aims to encourage recruitment and retention of doctors in remote WA and educate future city doctors to be empathetic and responsive to the needs of country people.

Yoveena was placed with the environmental health team from the Shire of Derby, which gave her an appreciation of how much the local government works to support the health and well-being of remote communities.

“We travelled out to the remote communities to conduct housing checks and pet checks,” Yoveena said.

“Pet checks involved registering any new puppies born, desexing pets or speaking with owners about getting their dog scheduled for the next spaying clinic. We also handed out worming tablets and other medications to keep the dogs as healthy as possible.

“Scabies is quite an issue in some communities, so part of the visits involved education about the need to air out mattresses regularly and washing clothes in hot water.

“The team also carried an impressive tool kit with them, so they completed minor fixes such as reattaching broken doors, loose tiles or tightening taps. They also noted down larger repairs that needed to be fixed by the maintenance team.

“Previously I had no idea about how involved local government was with these communities, who don’t receive much help from external authorities.”

A highlight for Yoveena was spending time at the Derby Youth Centre.

“The centre is open from 2-8pm each day and will attract up to 120 kids from the town and surrounding communities. They have a bunch of different activities and it’s wonderful that this safe space is available. These kids have all grown up together and I really enjoyed the energy and sense of community it offered.”

For Oliver, the placement reaffirmed his desire to pursue rural medicine.

“I was previously a surgical nurse in a metro hospital, which treated lots of remote patients. More than once, I heard doctors tell patients they expected to see them in six weeks for a follow-up appointment,” Oliver said.

“These patients were often baffled about how they could make that happen, and the onus was placed on them to work it out. Even back then I felt that attitude wasn’t right. It’s critical that clinicians understand the context of their patients to ensure they deliver the best possible care.

“I think this program helps to give the next generation of doctors better insight and hopefully leads to more appropriate and compassionate care for rural and remote.”

You can view a video on the program below.

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