Research to help rural health

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A Central Otago health professional hopes her upcoming research will help address some of the inequities faced in the rural health sector. Pam Jones talks to Sarah Walker about a national fellowship she has received that will help her look into the challenges and complexities faced by rural allied health professionals.

A Central Otago physiotherapist will notch up a national first following health research she hopes will help all rural communities.

Sarah Walker has just been named a recipient of a Health Research Council of New Zealand Clinical Research Training Fellowship.

The $204,000 fellowship will allow Mrs Walker, who is a physiotherapist for Central Otago Health Services (Cohsl), which operates from Dunstan Hospital, to begin a doctorate at the University of Otago next year.

Not only will the research help inform future development and training of the rural health workforce, it will also make her New Zealand’s only rurally based clinical academic physiotherapist.

Cohsl general manager Dr Kathryn de Luc said Mrs Walker’s fellowship was a “great achievement” for Mrs Walker personally and professionally, and would help find solutions to the health inequities experienced by those in Central Otago and the Upper Clutha district.

Mrs Walker’s studies will investigate the scope of practice, challenges and complexities experienced by rural allied health professionals.

She said her research would be the “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. 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.”

Her research will help determine if there is a need for a distinct area of specialty within rural allied health and a need for extra support and training.
‘‘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.’’
At present only 3% of physiotherapists in New Zealand held an annual practising certificate to work in rural areas, and that figure was similar for other health professions, Mrs Walker said.
As well, rural health professionals had a heavier workload and carried a higher level of clinical responsibility, she said. For example, ‘‘rural hospitals don’t have specialist neuro­physiotherapists, or physios that have an interest in respiratory conditions — we have to take up those roles for ourselves’’.
Mrs Walker’s fellowship was one of 67 awarded to researchers who received funding in the Health Research Council’s 2020 Career Development Awards.