Health inequities between urban and rural locations are well recognised. A significant factor contributing to these inequities is the challenge of attracting and recruiting a skilled rural health workforce.
There is growing evidence that students who complete a practice placement in a rural or remote location are more likely to take up a rural post during their working lives.
Operating for over 20 years, the WA Centre for Rural Health (WACRH) provides leadership, support and facilitation for health professions students to complete practice placements in rural or remote locations across the Midwest and the Pilbara regions of Western Australia. The critical long-term outcome of this work is to help build the rural health workforce.
WACRH supports The University of Western Australia (UWA) students from health programs that include podiatry, pharmacy, exercise science, exercise physiology, social work and public health to participate in clinical, community and service learning placements arranged by, and in some cases supervised by, a team of expert health professional educators within WACRH. Where students are not directly supervised by WACRH educators, the organisation provides training, mentoring and support to rural clinicians in their supervision role.
Increasingly, virtual links back to the UWA campus allow for students to engage in campus-based opportunities from rural and remote sites. This is opening up the possibility for longer placements, allowing students to become more embedded in rural communities.
Impediments to students’ uptake of rural and remote placements frequently relate to financial pressures and concerns regarding the unknown. The WACRH model is designed to provide a safe and supported learning environment that goes beyond academic and clinical support to include practical help with the provision of comfortable and secure accommodation, transport, social support and cultural orientation.
Providing students with practical learning opportunities that add value to the educational opportunities they have already experienced in their university programs is an important feature of the WACRH educational model. Rural placements provide students with exposure to the significant health and social challenges experienced by rural communities. They experience work in environments that demand innovation and creative clinical reasoning, often with fewer resources and more distributed service delivery models.
Conversely, students are exposed to the benefits of rural practice, with smaller close-knit teams, supportive communities and opportunities to extend their learning.
Completing a rural placement also introduces students to rural service providers and employers keen to recruit new professionals to their teams. Many students who complete placements in their final years of university return to take up professional roles in rural locations.
Karen Street, the Director of Population Health for WA Country Health Service Midwest, reports that they currently have four staff members in their team who completed a WACRH rural placement in the Midwest region.
“Completing a placement gives students an understanding of our rural context and they make social connections here, so their willingness to apply for roles in our region is increased,” Karen said.
Another rural employer who recently employed two new graduate health professionals commented that having students on rural placement at their organisation contributed to their workforce development.
“Having students on placement was a very rewarding experience for us. At the end of their placement they were offered short-term contracts because I saw them in action and felt satisfied they had the right qualifications, skills and personality for our organisation,” the employer said.
Without WACRH providing these opportunities for rural and remote placements, many metropolitan-based students wouldn’t get the rich learning experiences that come with these placements, which ultimately encourage these students to apply for positions in these regions upon graduation.”