GROW Rural Student Returns to Woorabinda for Placement

12 July 2023

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Third-year UQ medical student, Johanna Joyce, completed her 6-week placement earlier this year in the small rural town of Woorabinda, in Central Queensland. She first visited Woorabinda in 2021, as part of Health Workforce Queensland's GROW Rural Central Queensland program, where students visit the rural communities of Woorabinda, Theodore and Moura each year, for three consecutive years. Johanna connected with the team at the Multipurpose Heath Service again during last year's visit and was thrilled to be back there recently to complete her placement.

We chatted to Johanna to get the low-down on her placement and see how she's feeling about a rural health career.

Johanna, you’ve recently completed a 6-week placement in Woorabinda. What inspired you to choose Woori for your placement? Did your participation in GROW Rural Central Queensland play a part?

I first learned of and visited Woorabinda (found on the traditional lands of the Wadja and Gungaloo Aboriginal peoples) in 2021 as a part of the GROW Rural Central Queensland program. The brief visits in 2021and 2022 piqued my interest in the community, and I discussed the possibility of undertaking a placement at Woori in my third year with the health service staff - they were extremely supportive! When putting in preferences for my rural placement this year, I applied for special consideration to go to Woori and was supported by the University of Queensland. Without the GROW program, it's unlikely I would have preferenced Woori as high, and I definitely would not have applied for, and received, special consideration.

Please tell us all about it! What did your days look like?

My days at Woori were long and varied - no two days looked the same! Most of my time was spent in the General Practice that operates out of the Multi-Purpose Health Service and the Emergency Department. Alongside these services, there are many outpatient clinics which visit Woorabinda - I was lucky enough to spend some time with the Indigenous Respiratory Outreach Care (IROC) team, Gumma Gundoo Antenatal Maternity Service, and Deadly Ears. Outside of business hours, I often found myself studying late at the hospital (particularly given I had extremely limited internet access at home, Eduroam Wifi was a welcome support!). As is often the case, after-hours and weekends saw some of the most interesting and varied presentations. When I wasn't at the hospital, I was enjoying the fantastic scenery and wildlife, and spectacular sunrises and sunsets, or a meal at the Baralaba Hotel with other health and teaching staff from Woori!  

What was the highlight from your placement?

The standout clinical highlight from my placement came about 4 weeks in. In my second week at Woori, I was involved in the resuscitation and management of a critically ill patient, who ended up being airlifted first to Rockhampton, then Brisbane. Following drastic, life-saving emergency surgery in Brisbane, a couple of weeks later I saw this patient walking (!) through the doors of the Woori Hospital. Myself and the other health staff were gobsmacked, and thrilled to see how well this patient was. The patient and their family were extremely grateful to the health professionals involved, and it was fantastic to see the community come together in support. Aside from this, the overall highlight of my placement would have to be the community welcoming me with open arms. By my third week in Woori, I couldn't go for a run without stopping for a chat with a patient, their family, or a colleague. Feeling a part of the community was a real privilege, and it's something I'm already missing!

And the most important learning you took away from this experience?

A lot of my learnings in Woori came from the fantastic nursing staff. There were times where I was at the hospital with no medical officer present or on call; in times like these the nursing staff work hard to triage, manage patients, and escalate via video conferencing and retrieval services where necessary. I learnt valuable skills in assessing patients, particularly recognising signs of deterioration, how to handover to medical staff via phone and video, and communicating with patients and their supports throughout the process. However, the most important learning I took away from my time in Woori is understanding what it is like working in a rural area with limited resources. It is often necessary for patients from Woori to be transferred to tertiary centres - frequently with ailments that in other contexts, would not require admission. In my 6 weeks, there were countless occasions where calls to transfer and admit Woori patients were met with a lack of understanding of the community, and no insight into the constraints of the Woorabinda Health Service. These experiences taught me to be a fierce advocate for patients, and I am incredibly grateful to have worked with such wonderful staff leading the way.

What did you find to be the most challenging aspect?

At the start of my placement in Woori, the most challenging aspect was the steep learning curve. I was well and truly thrown in the deep end of seeing patients solo, learning the procedures and processes of the hospital, and getting to know the community. After a few weeks, I found my feet and my perception of what was challenging shifted to match that of the health staff and community - the gaps in the health workforce. A part of UQ rural placements is a research project into an area of need or quality improvement in the community; I wrote my project on one of the greatest challenges facing Woorabinda: obtaining and retaining medical workforce. In Central Queensland particularly, there is a paucity of medical officers, and a widening gap in health services, with First Nations communities such as Woorabinda disproportionately affected. This burdens the current staff, dissuades prospective staff, and of course, impacts accessibility to healthcare for the Woori community. Writing my project only made me more passionate about the topic, and I hope to continue supporting the community in this area throughout my studies, and beyond.

How does working in rural locations differ from metro locations in your experiences so far?

Living and working in rural locations is different to metro in almost every way possible. There are often very limited resources, extremely varied presentations, and different priorities of care out rural. In Woori particularly, the sense of community is extremely strong - it is not uncommon to have an emergency patient present with 10-20 family members following close behind as support. In terms of lifestyle, the commute to placement was 600m, the sunrises and sunsets were extraordinary, and the star-gazing was second-to-none.   

How are you feeling about going rural now that you’ve had this opportunity?

So many of the experiences I had in Woori taught me things I will remember and utilise for the entirety of my professional life. It has altered the way I interact with and understand patients, my knowledge of rural and Indigenous health, and will undoubtedly make me a better doctor. I feel incredibly privileged to have had the experience I did in Woori, and it will forever hold a special place in my heart. I am already looking for excuses to go back! My rural placement has definitely made me more inclined to work rurally, and I would encourage every medical and health student to take any opportunity possible to experience life outside of the city (even (especially) if you've never considered it before!).

Back to GROW Rural Central Queensland. What has been your highlight of this program to date?

I love the opportunity the GROW Rural program offers to visit the same places each year. The connections to communities we make are able to be deepened, and it is wonderful to see changes and growth with every visit. I value sharing the experience with diverse student representatives from medical and allied health backgrounds, and I think we all thoroughly enjoy each year. One of the best highlights was attending the Theodore Rodeo in 2022, and staying with a homestay family. Myself and the other students staying there enjoyed visiting the animals on the property and talking with our hosts, plus the excitement of the rodeo!

Do you think this program has been beneficial and would you recommend it to other medical and health students?

Without the GROW program it's unlikely I would have had a connection to Woorabinda and thus experienced this placement. GROW Rural is a wonderful way to get an insight into rural life, talk with rural health professionals, make connections to communities - all of which have the ability to drastically impact career direction and priorities. I would recommend the GROW program to any students eligible to apply.

Photos: Courtesy of Johanna Joyce, taken during her placement in Woorabinda.
Photo, bottom centre: Courtesy of Dineli Kalansuriya, and is of Johanna Joyce (left) and fellow GROW Rural student, Dineli Kalansuriya (right) taken at the Theodore Rodeo in 2022.