Ensuring that every Australian has access to health care is the cornerstone upon which the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) was built. Equitable access to health care requires that the same quality of care is provided to everyone, regardless of geographic location.
However, in our research paper entitled 'Equitable Patient Access to Primary Health Care in Australia' (published in late 2020), we found that rural and remote populations have poorer health outcomes, including a higher mortality rate, as compared to major city areas.
One crucial factor affecting rural health care is a scarcity of local health professionals. Recruiting and retaining allied health professionals in rural areas is a long-standing problem in Australia and overseas, and strategic action is required to grow and better equip Victoria’s rural workforce.
Our research paper drew on findings published by the World Health Organisation, which suggested that health professionals with a rural background have a greater likelihood of long-term practice in rural and remote areas. These findings support our own position that assisting rural health students to remain in the country after completing their degree is of critical importance.
In active recognition of these retention problems, RFDS Victoria offers rural students support through the Give Them Wings scholarships. Currently in their tenth year, these scholarships are awarded annually to first year university students from regional and rural Victoria who are studying nursing or allied health. Each scholarship is currently valued at $4,000 to assist with university expenses, and also includes the opportunity to experience a day in the life of a Flying Doctor – either on the road or in the air.
These scholarships are another way we can work to improve health outcomes in Victoria. The bush needs more health workers of all kinds, and these scholarships encourage young people to return to regional and rural areas once they graduate.
This issue was brought into stark focus in 2020 when COVID-19 hit hard in Victoria. With strict travel restrictions and the state’s ‘Ring of Steel’ imposed separating metro and regional Victoria, the need for easy access to local health care services was made more apparent than ever before.
Tackling problems in the bush requires ‘local’ resources, workforce, infrastructure and capacity. We can achieve a lot with telemedicine – but not everything.
Based on COVID-19 learnings, it is clear that not-for-profits and governments can work together in an agile, constructive and effective manner to address need in the bush. Getting a health practitioner on every street corner is never going to happen when it comes to country Australia – but RFDS can bring government, industry and people together for innovative solutions to solve these problems.
Charlton local and Occupational Therapy student, Megan Peverill, was a Give Them Wings scholar in 2018.
“Since university is a significant distance away from home, I had to move into campus accommodation. This scholarship helped me buy textbooks, stationery and groceries, as well as helping me pay for the costs associated with living on campus,” said Megan.
Megan found the scholarship invaluable in navigating her first year of university, and is excited to launch a career based in rural Victoria upon graduation.
"Seeing first-hand what the RFDS provides to the community has confirmed that practicing Occupational Therapy in rural communities is something that I would like to do in the future,” she said.
Funding for the Give Them Wings scholarship is provided through the fundraising efforts of the RFDS Bayside Auxiliary and sponsorship from Cooper Energy. Applications are now open for the 2021 Give Them Wings scholarships.