How to solve health professional shortages in your rural community

How to solve chronic rural health workforce shortages in your community

Dr Cath Cosgrave has been on a mission to address the chronic rural health workforce shortages across the country. With a decade of research under her belt, including countless hours of interviews with health professionals and rural community members, Dr Cosgrave has discovered not only discovered the key factors fueling the current shortage – but she has also created a solution.

It’s not surprising to know there are many complex reasons rural communities struggle to attract and retain a strong health workforce.

Dr Cosgrave’s key findings are:

  • Attracting and retaining a rural health workforce is complex – there are no simple solutions because people are also complex
  • Social factors strongly affect the retention of newcomers
  • The first 12 months is particularly challenging for newcomers
  • Rural communities need to be more inclusive and welcoming of newcomers; they need support to form social bonds, especially with locals
  • Health professional workforce strengthening strategies must be tailored for – particular social and geographical context of a community and – actively involve residents in their planning and delivery

However, knowing these – even though complex, has allowed for action to be taken. Using the findings from her PhD study as well as other rural health workforce research as the guide, Dr Cosgrave created the Attract Connect Stay Framework (also called the Whole-of-Person Retention Improvement Framework), which identifies three domains impacting retention:

  1. Workplace/Organisation
  2. Role/ Career
  3. Community/Place

It’s from these findings and the need to find workable solutions for the Community/Place domain that the Community Connector program was born – and there have been some incredible results for the early-adopting communities.

Why a Community Connector Program?

Australia’s National Rural Health Commissioner Ruth Stewart has thrown her support behind the program, citing the Community Connector Program as one of the community-led solutions able to implement real and positive change for strengthening rural health workforce

“In our rural communities….we need multi-disciplinary (healthcare) teams working in strong models that provide professional support and sustainable employment. We know that when the strategies to implement that —are in place, it works to keep people. That’s what I love so much about the Community Connector Program,” Ruth said.

“Cath’s (Attract Connect Stay) Framework provides us with the opportunity to improve our understanding and act on social elements and strategies to attract and retain professionals to the rural workforce. It recognises the importance of community involvement – it’s not just ‘what can the Government do for us?’; it’s ‘what can we do for ourselves and our community?’, to attract and retain rural health workforce.

She said the fact the Attract Connect Stay Framework recognises the importance of the whole person – not just who that person is (professionally) and what that person can do when they walk through the door of the workplace – makes the difference.

“Recognising who they are when they are living in the community, how they can connect to that community and contribute in many ways not just their in their working life – that’s important.”

How do we know it works to combat rural health workforce shortages?

Anna Moran of Unplex, has worked closely with Community Connector Pilot Project Team, led by Dr Cosgrave on evaluating the pilot. Anna’s role has been as an embedded evaluator, meaning she has evaluated the experiences of the communities who have embraced the program, and its impact.

Anna Moran, Unplex

“We know these roles (Community Connectors) allow for net movement of skilled professionals to rural communities and they allow for an increased awareness of lifestyle and employment opportunities in rural townships,” Dr Moran said.

“Most importantly – we’ve seen significant levels of satisfaction among newcomer health professionals who have used the program. For these new-to-area employees, we’ve seen high levels of intention to stay …. beyond 12 months, as well as a positive experience of moving to a rural community and have developed a sense of belonging.”

From the mouths of the participants

Sheryn Nourse, from Glen Innes Highlands said the most important factor underpinning the success of Community Connector so far was that the community was ready to participate.

“Attract Connect Stay came to our community at a time of crisis. One of our 4 medical practices was closing which releases several hundred patients back into an already overloaded system.

“Glen Innes was selected as the NSW Attract Connect Stay pilot site – and we’d already done some significant thinking before we went into the program which gave us a great foundation.

She said understanding the Attract Connect Stay Framework is key to success for any community.

“People have to understand that the Community Connector Program isn’t about solving the problems in the health system – its about building and strengthening from the bottom, up; growing a local constituency and building community support.”

Bim Rutherford, the Community Connector for Greater Shepperton said since the inception of the program 22 months ago in their community, they have relocated 332 new-to-area professionals and their families. Only 5 have left in the last 12 months.

“We’ve brokered really amazing relationships with local real estate professionals to ensure accommodation for incoming professionals, and that has been one of the key successes to attracting people to the area,” Bim said.

Meanwhile Mark Drury of Dundaloo Support Services, who is leading a group of committed individuals and businesses in the establishment of the Community Connector Program in the Mid Coast LGA in NSW, said partnering with Mid Coast Council has been an exciting to start. One of the key factors in getting people on board was utilising Cath’s knowledge of, and passion for, the program.

“Cath is awesome at delivering her research, and it’s an obvious no-brainer when community leaders listen to her that it’s something they need to go with…it’s really important to use her to keep the momentum going.”

What next?

The Community Connector Program is available to all rural and regional communities across Australia and elsewhere, who want to address and resolve their health workforce issues.

How to Attract Healthcare Workers to Your Community: The Community Connector Program -a Solution that Works is a webinar featuring the above-mentioned professionals, all whom have experience with the program. You can delve more into what they had to say here.

To discover whether your community is ready, organise a free 30 minute consultation with Dr Cosgrave to discuss whether the Community Connector Program is right for your community

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