WALKING THE WALK
Having worked as a GP and visiting medical officer in rural and remote Australia for more than 25 years, Dr Jennifer (Jenny) May AM is using her experience to inform policy and coordinate targeted approaches to develop and maintain a sustainable rural health work force.
As Director of the University of Newcastle Department of Rural Health (UONDRH), Jenny oversees the Rural Health Multidisciplinary Training (RHMT) Program in North Western NSW, the Tablelands and on the North Coast.
A national program delivered by universities and supported by the Commonwealth, Rural Health uses placements, professional supports, and targeted research with the aim of developing the rural health workforce.
Having worked in every state and territory except South Australia, as well as in remote regions of British Columbia, Jenny has been based in Tamworth since 2004.
Complimentary to her UONDRH position, Jenny maintains an active clinical practice. She is engaged at a local not-for-profit GP practice dedicated to improving rural health options through recruitment and training. She also has visiting rights at the local public and private hospitals.
In 2016, Jenny was awarded an Australia Medal for significant service to community health in rural and regional areas, as a general practitioner, member of professional medical groups, and as an educator.
NURTURING AND RETAINING TALENT
The RHMT program supports education and training with the intent of increasing the size and capacity of the rural health workforce.
From supporting priming experiences in different schools and faculties through to the provision of support to long-term academic placements within the footprint, The UONRDH offers medical, nursing and allied health students multifactorial supports.
Through offering affirmative pathways for students of rural origin, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, the UONDRH aims to nurture and retain local knowledge and talent.
For students from urban areas, the UONDRH also facilitiates clinical placements with university supported accommodation options at six sites -Tamworth, Taree, Port Macquarie, Coffs Harbour, Armidale, and Moree.
These placements increase the time urban students spend in rural areas - with the aim of conversion by immersion – and allow students to develop an understanding of the unique challenges and contexts of rural health.
“Cultural awareness, town orientation and community engagement activities are also a major part of what we do,” Jenny says.
“Overall, we want students to get a real sense of the advantages of rural lifestyle and have a taste of the connectedness that is often more evident in rural communities.”
Students involved in the RHMT program are regularly brought together to encourage relationship building across disciplines.
“Interprofessional education is very much our core business because we need everybody working together, building collaborative relationships based on trust,” Jenny says.
Jenny states she herself has been fortunate to have the opportunity to work in different rural areas with dedicated teams of clinicians and educators.
“It's slightly embarrassing to talk about things like the Australian Medal as it's not about me.”
“I was in a situation where I was surrounded by other motivated individuals and we made something happen.”
“To have a multifaceted program that provides such supports necessarily involves motivated individuals and support in a whole lot of different areas.”
For Jenny, the importance of connectivity extends beyond the personal. She has always been a strong advocate for governmental provision of improved technology and communication infrastructure in rural areas as a means of addressing inequity.
ADVOCACY ON STEROIDS
According to Jenny, a sense of community inclusion, and the many other benefits of a rural lifestyle are not the only reason students and practitioners should consider life in rural areas.
“I call it opportunity on steroids,” Jenny says.
“Where they are training pathways and there are career pathways, regional centres provide an opportunity to engage in a broad scope of practice, and do the sorts of things that interest you.”
“I've been able to participate in teaching and mentoring.”
“I've been able to participate in continuing professional development and I have had an opportunity to shape policy to support a sustained Rural Health workforce.”
“I don't know that I would have had those opportunities if I had been working in a metropolitan area.”
Jenny has been an active member of several medical professional advocacy groups, including the National Rural Health Alliance and as NRHA representative on the National Medical Training Advisory Network.
She has been involved in numerous committees and working parties around rural health issues and is on the Commonwealth Government advisory group on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ANACAD).
Her dedication to rural health saw Jenny awarded The Telstra’s Rural Doctors Association of Australia (RDAA) Rural Doctor of the Year 2014.
RESPONDING TO CHANGING NEEDS
The UONDRH also has a focus on research to better understand how to enable and support a long-term sustained regional workforce that provides the necessary skills for the community.
“It is essential for us to keep doing the research to assess that we are working in the right areas.”
“One of my own big research questions is have we been training specialists fit for purpose, and to what extent are regional training hubs an opportunity to better marry the scope of practice required in a rural community with the training we provide,” Jenny says.
Whereas an improved regional health workforce has justified the focus of the UONDRH on service delivery, needs of rural communities are fluid.
“As the scope of practice in some of our smaller rural communities is changing, that is impacting on the type of care that is being received, and the type of skills that are required both there and in our regional hubs.”
“What we have seen is an increased requirement for specialists in a regional centres.”
To address this issue, the UONDRH’s role has recently been extended through funding for a Regional Training Hub Program.
“Leveraging on the existing clinicians who teach into the program, we are pushing the boundaries of how we can support postgraduate training within the footprint,” Jennifer says.
“I'm very motivated to support the building of regional training hubs, because I feel that that is part of the pipeline where there is enormous potential to continue the growth of a sustainable and supported rural health work force.”