Every year thousands of university students undertake a clinical placement in a rural or remote health service as part of their undergraduate or postgraduate training. Students are drawn from universities all over Australia and come from a range of disciplines including nursing, midwifery, allied health and medicine.
For more than 20 years, the Australian Government has funded University Departments of Rural Health (UDRH) to work in partnership with local health services to facilitate rural training opportunities for students and build the rural health workforce. There are 16 UDRHs operating in regional, rural and remote locations across the country.
Like many organisations, last year the UDRHs found themselves having to quickly adapt to the changes brought about by COVID-19 and find new ways of enabling students to train in rural health services despite social distancing, lockdowns and border closures.
In order to better understand the impact of COVID-19 on health students undertaking a rural placement and to prepare for 2021, the Australian Rural Health Education Network (ARHEN) undertook a survey of more than 1500 students on their experience of studying and training during 2020.
The Impact of COVID-19 on student placements facilitated by University Departments of Rural Health report found that 80 per cent of students were able to complete their UDRH-facilitated, rural placement in some form, and of these, 84 per cent of students were satisfied with their experience. A similar percentage also considered they met the learning objectives of their placement.
Of those completing their placement, 87 per cent of students felt well supported by their supervisor while they were on placement and 84 per cent felt lucky to have been able to complete a placement during COVID-19.
The constraints associated with the pandemic did, however, introduce a number of additional stressors for students with 50 per cent reporting their placement was impacted in some way and 66 per cent reporting the COVID period as stressful.
In particular, 41 per cent of students completing a placement reported less access to clients and 21 per cent said their placement changed to be at least partly online or conducted by telehealth. In addition, the opportunity to travel around the region and experience the local community were also negatively impacted.
Other concerns reported by students relate to graduating on time and securing employment, as well as the impact of COVID-19 on students’ mental health and wellbeing.
According to the ARHEN Board Chair, Professor Lisa Bourke, the results demonstrate the resilience and enthusiasm of students for rural health and the commitment of the UDRHs and rural health services to supporting students.
“Rural clinical placements allow health students to gain the practical skills they will need in the workplace as well as experience first-hand the challenges and opportunities associated with working in the bush” Lisa said.
“Despite the challenges associated with COVID-19, students, health services and the UDRHs were able to work together and rapidly adopt strategies that balanced the learning needs of students with the heightened safety requirements generated by the pandemic.
“These research findings will be used by the UDRHs to inform our planning and support mechanisms for students and rurally based supervisors over the course of 2021 so that we continue to provide students with rich learning experiences that whet their appetite to return and work in the regions” Lisa said.