Rural health is a unique area of professional practice that holds many opportunities for health care staff. Despite this, Australia continues to face significant challenges associated with the recruitment and retention of rural clinicians. Three Rivers University Department of Rural Health (UDRH), Charles Sturt University, is funded under the Rural Health Multidisciplinary Training Program and coordinates several programs in the Riverina and Central West of NSW that are focused on rural learning opportunities, increasing rural workforce and enhancing service capacity for rural communities. These opportunities also fit within our research narrative that focuses on partnering with industry to explore ways to create rural clinical placements that are high quality for all stakeholders.
In 2019, Three Rivers UDRH and Kurrajong Therapy Plus partnered to provide student placements as part of a mental health and disability project. Kurrajong Therapy Plus is a division of Kurrajong disability services and employs physiotherapists, occupational therapists, speech pathologists and health educators. The organisation provides services to babies, children, adolescents and adults with significant delays and disabilities. The educators also provide services to vulnerable and at-risk children and families through block funding. The scope of the block funding does not extend to the provision of therapy supports.
One aspect of this partnership project was a student-led clinic for children identified as ‘pre-NDIS’ which was coordinated by fourth-year physiotherapy students. These children might otherwise not have access to physiotherapy services. Both Kurrajong employees and the students identified that the project was a success and the students reported high quality learning opportunities and felt the placement contributed immensely to their work-readiness.
In addition to research outcomes focused on student learning and rural health, we have observed that project partnerships are also able to influence rural workforce by exposing undergraduate students to health organisations in niche areas. Clinical placements allow students and prospective employers to see how they ‘fit’, and the student can explore the community as a potential place to live and work. For students, being offered a job in a location they have already worked in can decrease the anxiety that often occurs when making the transition from student to clinician. Clinical placements also allow students to get a feel for an organisation’s culture, enabling them to visualise their future practice.
This innovative placement project allowed for Kurrajong Therapy Plus and the students to assess one another in terms of future employment opportunities. In 2021, Kurrajong Therapy Plus employed nine new graduate allied health professionals across Riverina NSW, with most of the new graduates having completed clinical placements at Kurrajong. This story exemplifies the impact that partnerships between education organisations and industry can have to evaluate learning experiences and promote the rural health workforce.