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Retaining rural and remote health professionals - National Strategic Framework for Rural and Remote Health

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Retaining rural and remote health professionals

Workforce development has tended to focus on medical practitioners, however, the entire health workforce needs to be developed in keeping with cross-disciplinary and generalist requirements. In the overall remodelling of health practice in rural and remote areas, inter-professional education and ongoing training will be essential.

There is a critical need to expand existing scopes of practice and create new roles to optimise workforce capacity and to meet health care needs. The development of more advanced roles for rural GPs, including obstetrics, surgery and anaesthetics, and for nurse practitioners is seen as a useful strategy to strengthen and maintain a skilled rural health workforce. 

It is also important to consider the roles and scopes of practice of a wide range of other health care workers including remote health workers, nurses, allied health workers, midwives, Indigenous health workers and vocationally trained workers.

Rural Generalist Medicine (Queensland)

In August 2005, the Queensland Government announced the recognition of a new category of senior doctor called the ‘Rural Generalist’.  Rural Generalist training commenced in 2007 within the Rural Generalist Pathway.

Queensland officially recognised Rural Generalist Medicine in 2008.  As a specialist equivalent medical discipline, Rural Generalists can:

gain a professional status and a service value equivalent to that of a medical specialist

receive a specialist-level remuneration package, including a ‘private practice’ allowance.

The Rural Generalist Pathway provides supported training through medical school to Rural Generalist Medicine practice.

The practice of Rural Generalists includes rural general practice and hospital-based practice with at least one advanced skill in a specialist discipline. Rural Queensland will benefit from the priority advanced rural skills of obstetrics, anaesthetics, Indigenous health, emergency medicine and surgery. 

In the future, Rural Generalist Medicine increases the prospect of rural and remote communities being well supplied with doctors seeking rather than being coerced into rural service. 

It also potentially improves the chances of Indigenous communities being well supplied with doctors whose advanced skills in Indigenous health will provide a medical service dedicated to their unique needs.

In developing initiatives for a sustainable rural and remote health workforce, there is now sufficient evidence to bring the focus of recruitment strategies towards shorter retention cycles. In place of expectations of GPs staying in town for decades, workforce planning should focus on three to seven year cycles, dependent on the workforce group. This re-orientation of strategy requires ongoing efforts and continual succession planning.

Planning for education and training in rural and remote areas needs to recognise that the professional, personal and community-based activities of health care providers often overlap in small communities. Health care providers and health service managers are often effectively ‘on call’ continuously and, therefore, special effort is required to enable them to undertake their continued training and development.

Workforce planning, education and professional development should involve active partnerships with the tertiary education sector and other national bodies, such as professional colleges, national peak bodies, and the national accreditation and registration system.

An example of a successful model that combines specialist roles for nurses, with the appropriate training, guidelines and partnerships to support them is outlined below:

Remote Area Nursing Emergency Guidelines and Training (Victoria)

There are fifteen Bush Nursing Centres (BNCs) located in remote and isolated communities throughout rural Victoria. BNCs provide key primary health and emergency stabilisation services to these communities. Due to the remoteness of these communities, BNC nurses may be the only health care professionals available to provide first line care in the event of a medical or trauma emergency.

BNCs can employ Remote Area Nurses (RANs) who are up-skilled to provide time critical emergency response and stabilisation care in the absence of a medical officer or paramedic. The regulatory framework in Victoria provides for RANs to have the delegated responsibility to provide emergency care provided that they have completed annual competency based training based on the Victorian Remote Area Nurses Emergency Guidelines (RANEG).

A key component of this model is the partnership between BNCs and Ambulance Victoria. Ambulance Victoria conduct annual competency based training and provide peer support and mentoring to the RANs. RANs through joint dispatch arrangements with Ambulance Victoria provide a first response to emergency calls in their community and are able to arrive and commence emergency care to patients substantially prior to paramedic or medical officer assistance.

The Framework seeks to build a health workforce that meets the needs of rural and remote communities through better recruitment, training and continual professional development, and retention of skilled health professionals and non-clinical health workers to achieve Goal 3:

Rural and remote communities will have an appropriate, skilled and 
well-supported health workforce

Strategies are outlined in the following table.

Outcome area 3: Health workforce

Goal 3: Rural and remote Australia has an appropriate, skilled and well-supported health workforce



Objective 3.1

Improved recruitment, retention and distribution of rural and remote health service providers

  • Support training placements to rural and remote practices across all health professions.

  • Consider supply of appropriate infrastructure for health service staff including housing and health service facilities, where market failure has contributed to a lack of availability or high cost.

  • Introduce flexible workload management and support by providing after-hours call centre services, professional networks and readily accessible locum support.

  • Promote safe and healthy workplaces, particularly in high risk areas, ensuring professional and inappropriate physical isolation are addressed.

  • Bundle financial and non-financial incentives to address the broad range of factors that affect workforce supply and distribution.

  • Develop communication strategies that promote the rewards of careers in rural and remote areas.

  • Identify strategies to attract and retain health service support staff.

  • Routinely evaluate and improve workforce support programs to ensure they contribute towards a more equitable distribution of rural and remote health service providers.

Objective 3.2

Build a health workforce that meets the needs of local communities

  • Identify opportunities for new or expanded roles and varying of the skill mix of multidisciplinary team members to enhance services.

  • Explore flexibility in the scope of practice for all health service providers and promote more advanced skill roles for GPs and nurses. 

  • Implement innovative funding mechanisms for services delivered by non-medical health service providers.

  • Identify and explore options for addressing legislative, regulatory and other barriers that limit the full service capacity of rural and remote health professionals.

  • Recognise and support the role of GP proceduralists and nurse practitioners in delivering health services in rural and remote settings.

  • Promote interdisciplinary training to reduce barriers between health care professionals.

  • Introduce new professional and semi-professional roles such as vocational and tertiary trained assistants, transport providers and coordinators, and telehealth/e-Health coordinators.

  • Ensure preventative health becomes an important element of skills development for the rural health workforce.

  • Introduce technology and other efficiency measures to assist the workforce to address the health needs of communities.

Objective 3.3

Improved availability of training and continuing professional development programs for rural and remote health professionals

  • Ensure workforce has access to appropriate and well supervised clinical training, education and continuing professional development opportunities, including better use of ICT for training delivery and support.

  • Develop opportunities for rural and remote GPs to access training in advanced skills.

  • Promote expansion of scholarship, clinical placement, and bonded scholarship programs to all health disciplines.

  • Target clinical training placements to areas of workforce need.

  • Develop appropriate funding mechanisms to support distance supervision of remote practitioners and new and emerging health service providers.