Jennifer Doggett writes:
The National Rural Health Alliance’s 6th Rural and Remote Health Scientific Symposium, which kicks off in Canberra tomorrow, will bring together established rural health research leaders with political representatives, early career researchers, peak rural health bodies, Indigenous health stakeholders and rural health consumers.
Focussing on the past 20 years of rural and remote health research that informs strategic health policy and service delivery, the aptly named ‘Outback Infront’ event will provide opportunities for both celebration and challenge.
Celebration, firstly, because the Symposium will mark 20 years since the establishment of the first university department of rural health in 1997. This milestone event heralded two decades of innovative rural health research and the creation of an impressive body of knowledge to inform the development of health policies and programs in both rural and urban areas.
The Symposium will also provide an opportunity for celebrating the emergence of rural health leaders who have emerged as strong advocates for evidence-based change and who are now mentoring and guiding a new generation of rural health leaders.
Key research leaders speaking at the event include Professor Tom Calma on the importance of Aboriginal community researchers, Professor Alan Cass on the importance of patient, family and community stories in rural health research, and Emeritus Professor Lesley Barclay, who will lead a panel of experienced researchers to discuss the legacy of 20 years of rural health research.
These speakers will highlight the role that the rural health research movement has had in developing solutions to the health challenges facing all Australian communities, both rural and urban.
While central to the rural health sector, the NRHA and events like the Symposium are also relevant to the challenges faced by those working in urban health care settings.
In fact, whether its collaborating across sectors, dealing with limited resources or working in multi-disciplinary teams (better known in rural areas as ‘just doing your job’), city-based health care policy makers and managers have a lot to learn from how things are done in the bush.
This will be highlighted in the Symposium’s keynote presentations by Dr Judith Katzenellenbogen, Professor Luis Salvador-Carulla and Professor Hugh Taylor. These speakers will focus on the learnings from their research that have broader application outside of their immediate subject area.
For example, Professor Taylor will describe how success to date in improving eye care for Indigenous Australians demonstrates how to effectively link primary care with specialist services in other areas.
A number of sessions will question why the past two decades of high quality rural health research have not resulted in better rural health policies.
The rural health policy impasse
Directly addressing the need for increased action on rural health is the Day 1 colloquium session titled: The rural and remote health policy impasse: why hasn’t research evidence generated policies to improve rural and remote health services?
This session will include expert speakers Emeritus Professor John Humphreys, Associate Dean John Wakerman, Adjunct Professor Bob Wells, Associate Professor Sue Lenthall and Paul Worley, the National Rural Health Commissioner.
Delegates will have an opportunity to question these speakers on the ‘rural health policy impasse’ and discuss possible solutions to this problem during the colloquium session.
One proposal they might like to consider in this context is the suggestion made at last year’s National Rural Health Conference by leading health administrator and a director of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, Mick Reid who called for a new national entity to be established to drive collaboration across the rural health sector and the systematic implementation of evidence.
In his keynote address at the conference, Reid said:
My strong message is we do not collaborate enough. I’ve been around the health system quite a while and there are two characteristics of rural health which really need to be addressed if we are to go forward.
One is, there is very poor collaboration between multiple agencies. The other thing which occurs, which is not specific to rural health, but it is much more obvious in rural health – the application of evidence does not occur to the degree it should.”
Reid went on to describe how such an entity could be modelled upon Clinical Excellence Commissions and located within the National Rural Health Alliance. This proposal was supported by Dr Lesley Russell and others at the conference; it will be interesting to see if it is discussed further at the Symposium.
An important perspective on rural health policy will be provided in the address from the Minister for Rural Health, Senator the Hon Bridget McKenzie, whose keynote presentation at the start of Day 2 will set the scene for a session on Closing the Gap, clearly the most urgent of our nation’s health challenges.
Hopefully the Minister will provide delegates with an opportunity to ask questions about the Government’s future plans for action on Indigenous and rural health, and will be able to interact with the speakers and attendees and hear at least some of their stories before having to return to her parliamentary responsibilities.
Opportunities to hear about and provide input into specific rural health research projects will be provided by the Rogano Sessions where researchers will present their research and seek feedback from delegates. Topics covered in these sessions include the future for rural generalists, the delivery of health care in rural prisons and over-the-counter codeine dependency in rural Tasmania.
There will also be a series of short Lightning Talk presentations from emerging and active researchers covering a diverse range of topics such as the management of Aboriginal children presenting at rural emergency departments, allied health teletherapy and older people’s roles in rural emergencies.
The final session of the Symposium focuses on resourcing, access and equity in rural health and features keynote addresses from health economist Professor Leonie Segal and Claire Sparke from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, as well as a panel discussion featuring: Professor Amanda Kenny; David Hallinan, First Assistant Secretary, Health Workforce Division, Department of Health; Chris Bourke from the Australian Healthcare and Hospital Association; and Australia’s first Indigenous dentist, Rob Curry.
With a Federal Budget around the corner and an election on the horizon, this Symposium will provide rural health advocates with the information, research findings and support they need to make a strong case to governments (and potential governments!) for evidence-driven and community-based changes to improve the health and well-being of rural Australians.