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Aspiring health workers experience outback in ‘eye-opening’ immersion in Kimberley

Maryam Ahderom relaxes in the outback sun and reflects on three ‘life-changing’ weeks doing a primary health placement in northern Western Australia.

“It was amazing…really eye-opening,” she said.

“It’s very beautiful here.”

Nursing student from Edith Cowan University has almost completed her internship in the center of Kununurra in the East Kimberley.

She said the most interesting day was flying to the northernmost indigenous community in the state, Kalumburu, to provide education on kidney disease.

It’s a place where many people live in poverty and doctors usually come and go.

“The reality of people living there is so different from people living in Perth,” Ms Ahderom said.

Nursing student Maryam Ahderom [L] describes his trip to Kalumburu as eye-opening.(Provided by: Liesl Dowling)

She said her African upbringing in Uganda helped her understand the wealth and health gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

“I know a lot about what privilege really means…how privileged we are in Australia and how some Australians are more privileged than others,” Ms Ahderom said.

Connecting with Remote Indigenous Peoples

Sahar Abbasi, a second-year nursing student, grew up in Afghanistan and knew what it was like to navigate a new culture.

a nurse holds an aboriginal toddler in a remote medical clinic
Sahar Abbasi said she enjoys visiting Kalumburu to provide education on kidney disease.(Provided by: Liesl Dowling)

The 21-year-old spoke Farsi and Dari when she moved to Australia seven years ago and immediately struggled to master English.

Ms Abbasi said she could understand what it was like for many Indigenous people in remote Western Australia who struggled to navigate modern, bureaucratic healthcare systems.

“Because I come from a second language, it was very difficult for me to enter a new culture and understand people,” she said.

“And it’s hard for them [remote Indigenous people] to understand the situation and the language, and how health is managed in Australia.

“So that I can understand them and connect with them.”

The two nurses said the past three weeks had prepared the ground for them to return to the Kimberleys when they qualified, and possibly even live there long-term.

A taste of remote working

Supervisor Liesl Dowling is an experienced nurse and midwife who fell in love with Kununurra after initially planning a short stay.

a woman smiles at a camera while standing in front of a lake
Liesl Dowling says it’s important to see first-hand the barriers to health in remote communities.(ABC Kimberley: Ted O’Connor)

She is a clinical facilitator at the Majarlin Kimberley Center for Remote Health, one of 16 Commonwealth-funded academic departments nationwide that has given aspiring health workers a taste for working in a rural or remote area.

Ms Dowling said on-the-job experience was crucial for student development.

“When you come to a remote area and you can actually see that there is poverty, it becomes part of your lived experience and it becomes a concern for you,” she said.

“There is nothing wrong with reading about the barriers to health care uptake and the outcome gap between Aboriginal and traditional Australians, but these are just words on paper until you really saw it.”

Desperate for permanent staff

Research published earlier this year found that doctors who spent a lot of time in a rural placement were more likely to work there in the future.

a young woman leans back and smiles while sitting on a green lawn
Ms Ahderom said her upbringing in Uganda gave her insight into the shortcomings of indigenous health.(ABC Kimberley: Ted O’Connor)

The federal government has offered to write off student debt for senior nurses and doctors if they move to the bush after graduation.

The Kimberley in particular has long been crying out for more permanent health workers and has suffered crippling staff shortages in recent years, especially for nurses.

In its most recent annual report, the WA Country Health Service said the growing reliance on expensive and transient locums and agency staff was partly to blame for rising health care costs.

Ms Dowling said ‘immersing’ young health workers in a remote setting would help tackle the problem.

“The transition is problematic. It poses barriers and some risks in the delivery of health care, because you don’t have that knowledge on the ground,” she said.

“Reducing this level of fugacity is an important part of the healthcare strategy.”

A “tight” work team

The challenges of working in the Kimberleys have been highlighted during the pandemic.

a young woman stands in front of a lagoon of reeds
Isabel Morton plans to work in a remote location after undertaking the internship.(ABC Kimberley: Ted O’Connor)

Crucial staff left the area after growing tired of the workplace culture, conditions and high youth crime rates.

But Isabel Morton, a final-year masters student at Curtin University, said her eight-week speech therapy internship at Kununurra Hospital had revealed some advantages over working in the city.

“I didn’t think I wanted to work in a rural setting, but I really like it, so I’m definitely considering taking a rural job next year,” she said.

Ms Morton said she was impressed with the variety of work at Kununurra Hospital and the close bonds between colleagues.

“We all have lunch together and they get together on the weekends, so it’s a very strong, tight-knit working team,” she said.

“Here I’m able to do everything, so I can see kids doing speech and language and going into rooms and seeing kids with swallowing issues as well.”

The Majarlin Kimberley Center will open a hostel in Kununurra next year to accommodate more distant placements.

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