Jeremy Lasek – PHAA
Today we continue our articles, profiling the roles played in Australia’s incredibly diverse public health workforce.
In a series of articles over the next few weeks, we will recognise and celebrate those who received well-deserved ‘gongs’ in the recent Australia Day Honours list.
We begin by meeting West Australian based Professor Sandra (Sandy) Thompson who has been appointed a Member of the Order of Australia ‘for significant service to tertiary education, to rural and regional health, and to Indigenous health’.
Sandy is currently based in Geraldton (population 38,000), a coastal city in the mid-west region of WA, 424 kilometres north of Perth. We spoke as Sandy was preparing to travel north to Carnarvon (population 4,400) to help progress an exciting new health project for rural WA (but more on that a bit later).
Sandy is Director of the WA Centre for Rural Health, and Professor of Rural Health at the University of Western Australia. Challenging current healthcare delivery methods and improving the healthcare experiences of rural communities is a key focus of her research.
She studies remote communities and the prevention and management of chronic disease and Aboriginal health. It includes the attraction and retention of health professionals in country areas, how quality improvement can improve healthcare, and the exploration of barriers to healthcare in remote communities.
Professor Thompson builds partnerships and strong networks that strengthen the Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships in rural towns and assists in performing research. She is a public health physician, and promotes the benefits of student placements in rural towns to students and people in these communities.
Why did you choose a career in public health?
As often happens, Sandy chose medicine as her first degree but as she explained ‘opportunities presented themselves and I saw the value in preventive health instead of focussing on fixing people up. That just resonated with me.’
Sandy was part of the intake of the first Victorian Public Health Training Scheme and concurrently completed her Masters of Public Health.
‘Early on, I was lucky to be exposed to some fabulous mentors and received a number of great opportunities.’
What part of your work gives you the greatest satisfaction?
‘I’ve been lucky to work with some really passionate people and privileged to lead an organisation making a real difference; but when it’s all said and done, it’s really all about teamwork. I really like that aspect of our work. It’s never about one thing, or one person, it’s about tying things together and a sustained effort over time.’
Sandy emphasises the importance of sustainability, especially when it comes to the often-fragile work done in a rural health environment.
‘We’ve been lucky that we’ve been able to achieve sustainable funding over the years, but of course we also put a lot of focus on making sure we’re delivering what we are funded to do.
‘We’re also fortunate to be a part of a national network which strategizes together as a group, working collaboratively on rural health across our universities.
‘What has been pleasing, in more recent times there’s been a real shift with the introduction of policies which address regional disadvantage.
‘It’s been particularly important in the past decade that there’s been a lot more recognition of the inequalities in health in our rural and Aboriginal sectors.
‘A big step forward has been Aboriginal people having more control over their lives. It certainly hasn’t always been that way, and we need to see more of that.
‘One of the biggest steps forwards has been the growth in real investment in rural health during the WA boom, such as building student accommodation to help get students into the bush.’
What are some of the greatest challenges right now?
‘One of the biggest challenges in our smaller communities is the lack of support. We need capable people listening to community voices and working together with local communities who, in too many cases, have no voice or rather one that doesn’t reach to our parliaments, and those who hold the purse strings.
‘Smaller communities with 600 people or less, are electorally disadvantaged, and don’t get anything like what they need. It’s a tragedy, they simply aren’t able to compete with the bigger towns. Put simply, the money goes where the votes are.’
Sandy said providing students the type of connectivity which is taken for granted in our cities is also essential.
‘It’s very important to give them access to wi-fi, if, for no other reason, to open their eyes to rural lives and living and the potential for rural careers. It’s important that investment in rural health infrastructure matches investment into outback services and programs.’
How has COVID impacted your life and your work?
Sandy said people who see WA during the pandemic as almost unaffected by COVID, have it totally wrong, we are ‘in a huge, beautiful prison’.
‘We all have family and friends in other places. Of course, we’re all impacted by COVID. We all like to travel, expand our horizons and visit our family and friends.’
With the ongoing WA border closures, this remains a significant challenge.
‘Professionally, it’s definitely had an impact on the training of young people to become health professionals. So much of the training has had to happen on line which just isn’t the same. Graduates over the next few years, will have to learn quickly on the job without the usual practical experience during their training.’
On a personal level, Sandy’s children have all returned to WA from interstate to be closer, and better able to support each other through the pandemic.
As a former 2018 PHAA Mentor of the Year, tell me how important you see mentoring?
‘Mentors are always important – we learn so much from others and it’s important to give others feedback. It’s about sharing personal experiences and building an understanding of others’ experiences and circumstances.
‘Sometimes we have blind spots in our behaviour and how we communicate. It’s a fine line. It’s not only about positive messaging, we also need some real honesty, not just positive spin.
‘At the same time, as a mentor it’s important not to be too critical. Be kind and responsive to your mentees needs. None of us are perfect and we all have so much more to learn from others. In the end, we are all learning together.’
Who would you like to give a shout-out to?
Her first is to her colleagues, ‘especially those working in complex areas of high-need.’
‘It’s hard work for those working on the smell of an oily rag, as so often happens. I’d love to see Geraldton and more remote small towns get more funding. We’re very under-resourced and more funding would enable us to do so much more fantastic work.’
Sandy’s other big shout out is to the leadership team ‘that got collaborative efforts at a primary prevention of family violence initiative started in Geraldton, Desert Blue Connect’.
This organisation leads the way in Geraldton, offering a range of health and wellbeing services which include family violence response, primary prevention, community education and crisis accommodation for women and children.
If you were the Minister for Health for a day, what would you do?
‘Let’s start by introducing the sugar sweetened beverage tax – (a part of the PHAA’s 2022-23 Federal Budget Submission)’ Such an easy thing to do.
Sandy would also direct greater funding into preventive health and a stronger focus on schools which she says are underfunded.
‘I’d like to see schools much more closely connected to the communities they’re a part of.
Kids need a lot more one-on-one attention, and our schools need to be resourced to offer more nuanced support to help tackle some of our biggest social problems.’
What advice would you have for someone considering, or starting out on a career in public health?
‘Get yourself some good skills, in epidemiology, policy and health promotion – and vocational training is so important, not just theory.
‘I’d love to see some of our public health degrees include in the courses a good block of time in practical areas, helping build health in communities. Blocks of time that allow students to be immersed into rural and remote communities. This will also get students great experience outside their comfort zone and fantastic learning that can transform their understanding of the world and the challenges that people face.
What’s coming next for you in your career?
Sandy is playing a lead role implementing a new rural allied health training initiative to boost training opportunities in Carnarvon and Roebourne for up-and-coming nurses and allied health professionals.
A grant of nearly $3 million will establish the Carnarvon Aged Care Training Program and a grant of about $2.2 million will create the Roebourne Remote Health and Social Care Training Hub.
‘Carnarvon and Roebourne are remote towns and this offers fantastic opportunities for allied health and nursing students to experience many aspects of rural life, working in communities that have longstanding health workforce needs.’
Photo of Prof Sandy Thompson: University of Western Australia