Mapping a clear career path for rural health workers

The struggle for rural and remote communities to retain allied health workers is having a negative impact on many who experience long wait times and inconsistent access to a broad range of health services.   

The problem compelled Flinders Caring Futures Institute lecturer Ali Dymmott to focus her PhD research on how effective training programs can help bolster the rural allied health workforce. 

As Lead investigator in the 2019 SA Health project “The Allied Health Rural Generalist Pathway (AHRGP) evaluation”, Ali examined the effectiveness of this training initiative – and found that participants were prepared to keep working in rural areas for longer periods. 

The AHRGP is a two-level training program that combines profession-specific post-graduate rural generalist training with work integrated learning opportunities, including quarantined study time, dedicated discipline-specific supervision and the opportunity to participate in quality improvement and service development projects.   

“Rural and remote health service faces challenges recruiting and retaining allied health professionals, especially in an era of expanding NDIS and aged care services. Staff may move to a rural or remote area for one or two years, but then most return to metropolitan areas,” says Ali.  

“Our research delved into the reasons why they move back and found that career advancement opportunities and training are factors that organisations can make positive changes to and will help retain more workers in rural and remote areas.”  

Ali Dymmott

Working with the SA Health’s Rural Support Service and regional Local Health Networks across rural and remote South Australia, Ali used their data and staff as participants through four phases of investigation to examine how trainees experienced and responded to the AHRGP training pathway. 

“The AHRGP training aims to provide work integrated post-graduate training and career advancement opportunities for staff while also improving workforce outcomes and having positive impacts on the health services and rural and remote communities,” says Ali. 

Through analysing the participation of trainees, supervisors, managers, clinical leads, project managers and consumers, Ali and the research team were able to map pathways for trainees to enjoy future success and also provide an economic evaluation to measure the impact of the pathway. 

“There hasn’t been previous research from the perspective of health services or consumers about the effectiveness of AHRGP training – and this is crucial if the program is to have effective outcomes,” says Ali.  

“Our aim was to provide guidance to any health service wanting to implement post-graduate training initiatives for their staff – an essential part of realising the career advancement ambitions of allied health staff posted in rural and remote locations.” 

One graduate said the learning they had acquired during the pathway had given them the confidence and drive to explore different clinical areas, apply for promotional positions and continue to learn new things. 

However, other course participants said the training needed clearer career advancement pathways and deserved greater recognition by the organisations they work for.  

“From this, our report recommended that graduates should be linked to industry mentors, service development projects and career advancement opportunities to add value to the pathway outcomes,” explains Ali. 

“We also published a systematic review comparing and contrasting the experience of early career allied health professionals and doctors in rural and remote environments, to help inform government policy around workforce initiatives that will suit the needs of allied health professionals and doctors as separate professions rather than assuming both groups have the same needs.” 

SA Health has been very receptive to the four reports based on the Flinders Caring Futures Institute research and has adopted a range of the recommendations to its AHRGP training program. “I’m delighted that these outcomes have influenced how SA Health currently runs the rural generalist pathway and how it plans to run this program in the future,” says Ali.  

“We hope this research will inform workforce planning policy about what allied health professionals need to sustain a rural or remote career, without them having to leave to meet their professional goals and aspirations. 

“If we have a consistent, sustainable workforce, our rural and remote communities will be able to benefit from trained, high-quality, confident and competent health professionals who can meet their needs and help them live healthy and happy lives.” 

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Quality Aged Care