Rural communities are set to benefit from research into rural health professionals skills

Thursday, 31 October 2019, 10:39 am
Press Release: Health Research Council

Rural communities set to benefit from research into rural health professionals’ skills

Sarah Walker knows first-hand what it takes to be a practising physiotherapist in a rural community, and now she aims to determine whether rural allied health professionals in New Zealand require fundamentally different skills to their urban counterparts.

Walker has just been awarded a $204,000 Clinical Research Training Fellowship from the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) to investigate the scope of practice, challenges and complexities experienced by rural allied health professionals.

She describes it as a first step in addressing the skills shortage in rural areas and reducing the ‘huge disadvantages’ faced by rural communities when it comes to accessing healthcare.

“Of all the geographic categories, New Zealand’s rural towns have the lowest socioeconomic status, highest proportion of Maori, and highest avoidable mortality rates,” says Walker.

Yet despite the higher health needs, rural residents have poorer access to health services and greater costs in accessing these services, which is largely due to workforce shortages in rural areas.

Currently in New Zealand, only 3 per cent of physiotherapists hold an annual practicing certificate to work in rural areas, and a similar pattern is repeated across a number of health professions, she says.

As well as not having a large presence in rural areas, health professionals from all disciplines in rural areas have been found to sustain a heavier workload and carry a higher level of clinical responsibility as a result of carrying out a wider range of services.

In Dunstan Hospital, where Sarah works for Central Otago Health Services, she’s required to treat acute in-patients and carry out rehabilitation both in hospital and in homes. “It’s the complexities that you get – rural hospitals don’t have specialist neuro-physiotherapists, or physios that have an interest in respiratory conditions – we have to take up those roles for ourselves.”

To date, there is no recognition of the ‘rural generalist’ skillset required, says Walker, nor are there rural-specific career-pathways for allied health professionals.

Her research will help determine if there’s a need for a distinct area of specialty within rural allied health and a need for extra support and training, to ensure that rural communities are provided with a skilled and relevant health workforce to meet their needs.

“When you consider the disparities in health needs and socio-economic standards in rural areas, it feels remiss to further disadvantage those communities by not providing health professionals that are experts in providing treatment for that population,” says Walker.

“Rural communities have been left behind, which I guess is partly because of the general New Zealand rural attitude that we just band together and get it done. But it’s not necessarily fair or necessarily right, and it could definitely be better.”

The HRC Fellowship will help Sarah Walker complete her PhD at the University of Otago. She is one of 67 researchers selected for funding in the HRC’s 2020 Career Development Awards announced today. The awards help foster and sustain New Zealand’s health research workforce, and this year more than $13.4 million was awarded to researchers in clinical and academic roles, including Māori and Pacific health researchers.

These awards play a critical role in building capability and capacity in our research workforce, says the HRC’s acting chief executive Dr Vernon Choy. He says Sarah Walker’s proposal was notable, not only as it would establish her as New Zealand’s only rurally-based clinical academic physiotherapist but for its potential to inform future development and training of the rural health workforce.

“There’s increasing recognition of the health disparities within rural communities, and a clear goal of the HRC is to reduce inequities where they exist in New Zealand. We expect this research will contribute much-needed knowledge and evidence towards future rural health initiatives.”