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Maz reports on National Rural Health Conference Darwin May 2015

20 July 2015

Four solid days of keynotes, plenaries and concurrent sessions is big! And that is definitely one way of describing the National Rural Health Conference held late last month in Darwin. Over 1200 delegates congregated at the Darwin Convention Centre to grapple with, learn about and discuss the highs and lows of health in Rural Australia.

For a health conference first-timer, it was interesting, confronting, enlightening, frustrating and inspiring all at once!

Yes, there are exceptional people out there, working hard and having an impact! Like Bronte Martin from the National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre who told Conference Delegates that they can gather together 25 tonnes of equipment and in a few hours they can set up a 14 day self-contained field hospital in a disaster zone. Impressive!!

Yes there is some astonishing data out there about the state of health in rural and remote Australia. Amanda Vanstone, who is the Chair of the Royal Flying Doctor Service told us that “country people see Doctors half as often as city people and Specialists a third as often and Mental Health Services a fifth as often.” And if those numbers are staggering enough she also told us that the death rate is 35% higher in remote areas compared to those in the Cities. Gob smacking stats that reflect significant inequity!

And yes, there is innovation, holistic thinking and most importantly, there is still compassion. Like Peter Macdonald from Australian Doctors International, who through his work in Papua New Guinea has learned that “Welfare is treating the patient but development is treating the disease and the system”. He talked about capacity building and sustainability, not just sick people – inspiring stuff!!

Whilst the sobering statistics spoke for themselves, the conference theme of People, Places and Possibilities definitely instilled a sense of optimism and not surprisingly it was in the Arts and Health presentations that I sensed the most hope. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Sally Josh, a research officer from rural NSW talk about using drawing as a way to explore experiences of engagement between patients and health professionals. And the performance by the CemeNT Stars from the Darwin Community Arts Centre demonstrated the importance of drama in giving young people with mixed abilities a voice – which of course, is vital to health.

Overall, it was great to hear so many highly educated health professionals talk about the value and importance of wellbeing in health strategy – as one of the keynotes suggested, “We need to focus on wellness rather than disease management”. A universal truth for the conference was definitely that we need to collaborate across a multitude of community, health, business, education and government landscapes and look at all aspects of people, their communities and the systems that govern and guide how we live when thinking about health. The one concern in all of it for me however was that very few of the keynote speakers named the one thing that is undeniably vital for “wellbeing” to exist – and that is culture, and the capacity and freedom to express our culture, beliefs and heritage creatively. It was definitely implied, and mentioned in a round about way, but very few came straight out and said it! Wouldn’t it be great to just say it – culture and creativity is vital to health and wellbeing, ahhhh, doesn’t that feel better.

Great conference, well organized and informative with an overwhelming sense of legacy included in the program. A series of recommendations was developed during the conference in collaboration with delegates, which will no doubt drive the work of the Rural Health Alliance over the next two years. You can check these out here. Topics featured in the recommendations include Food security, the NDIS, Aboriginal Health Services, Workforce Development, Broadband Access and of course Funding!!

All the keynote presentations are available to view also – which is fantastic! I highly recommend Julian Disney from the Social Justice Project presenting “The Big Smoke and Distorting Mirrors”, especially if you want hear some interesting thoughts about how government fiscal policy influences population movement between rural and urban areas and poverty – fascinating stuff.

My other favourite was Jackie Schirmer, a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Canberra who presented “Creating Health Rural Places”. A fantastic source of data conveying the health of rural areas based on a broad set of indicators.

13th National Rural Health Conference
24 – 27 May 2015, Darwin Northern Territory