Home-grown talent supports NT health

Flinders University’s successful allied health program in Katherine and the Northern Territory will be expanded thanks to a federal government grant worth almost $2 million. The funding, from the federal government’s Rural Health Multidisciplinary Training (RHMT) program, will allow Flinders University to expand its long-standing presence in the NT in collaboration with Indigenous Allied Health Australia (IAHA) and two local Aboriginal Medical Services, with a focus on improving the recruitment and retention of allied health professionals for the region.

Flinders University President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Colin Stirling welcomed the government’s investment in growing the Northern Territory health work force, and says the support is a testament to Flinders’ long-standing commitment to serving the Territory.

“Flinders has developed and delivered health education and research expertise in the Northern Territory for more than 25 years, with local staff and infrastructure based in Darwin, Nhulunbuy, Katherine, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs,” says Professor Stirling. “Our deep commitment to the Territory is acknowledged by the government supporting us to extend our meaningful contribution in the remote communities across the region.”

(l-r) Director of Flinders’ Katherine Campus Associate Professor Sue Lenthall, Minister David Gillespie and Dean of Flinders Rural and Remote Health Professor Robyn Aitken

The Northern Territory Medical Program (NTMP), which celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2021, has steered an increase in the number of medical practitioners being trained for the unique health and wellbeing challenges that the Territory delivers. The NTMP is a success story that has seen 92% of students who entered the program being NT residents, and more than half (54%) remaining in the Territory long-term. Alongside this successful medical program, Flinders University’s popular paramedicine degree is now also offered in the Territory.

The new funding will be used to increase allied health learning opportunities in Katherine and surrounding areas for students to experience and contribute to the health of these communities during their studies. It is hoped they will return as graduates and continue their important work alongside other health professionals, broadening healthcare offerings throughout the Territory.

Each year Flinders University facilitates placements in the Northern Territory for more than 400 nursing and allied health students from universities across Australia, a program that has enjoyed great success. Between 2016 and 2019, just over one-third of students undertaking a placement in the Northern Territory took up positions in rural and remote Australia after their graduation and 81% reported that the positive experience led them to consider working in the NT.

Currently, 16 speech pathology students rotate through Katherine, working at schools each year. This program will be expanded to include 16 occupational therapy students at schools, and a further eight speech therapists and eight Occupational Therapists at Aboriginal health organisation Wurli-Wurlinjang each year.

Dean Rural and Remote Health Professor Robyn Aitken said Flinders University’s primary goal was to improve the health and well-being of the communities it serves, lives and works in.

“Flinders is committed to supporting the next generation of health workers to work in a rural or remote location through successful placements and unique experiences. The support given through the RHMT program allows us to expand on the work we are doing,” says Professor Aitken.

While importance is placed on producing a home-grown health workforce to increase the number of health care professionals in the Territory, a focus for all of Flinders’ ventures in the Territory is to produce health care professionals who can provide culturally safe and appropriate care. To ensure that the next generation of health care workers understand the unique communities and challenges they may face, the program has been backed by local resources and experience, and was co-designed with key partners including IAHA, Wurli-Wurlinjang and Katherine West Health Board (KWHB).

Kylie Stothers, IAHA’s Director of Workforce Development and a proud Jawoyn woman from Katherine, spoke of the need for local workforce solutions.

“IAHA is pleased to be a partner on this important work,” says Ms Stothers. “We know that a culturally safe allied health workforce plays a key role in improving the health and wellbeing outcomes of our communities, and clinical placement experiences in Katherine is an important strategy to developing the workforce locally.”

Thanks to the new grant, Flinders University will purchase two houses for accommodation to ensure students from universities across Australia can live in the Katherine region and immerse themselves in the communities they will be serving. Three full-time positions – a speech pathology supervisor, occupational therapy supervisor and Aboriginal allied health assistant – and a part time social work position will also be funded through the grant. An eight-seater vehicle will be purchased to allow students on placement to attend cultural training and experiences in remote communities.

The grant is one of seven new initiatives across Australia that are being funded as part of the federal government’s Rural Health Multidisciplinary Training (RHMT) program – with Flinders University awarded two of these grants, following last week’s announcement of an expansion to Flinders Rural and Remote Health training programs in South Australia’s Riverland, Mallee and Coorong regions.

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College of Medicine and Public Health College of Nursing and Health Sciences Northern Territory Medical Program