One in four New Zealanders live rurally, and these rural communities face unique issues when it comes to accessing healthcare. Reports have shown that factors like the centralisation of essential services, geographic and social isolation, and unstable health workforces can make it tough for rural Kiwis to get the health care they need.

Each year, the National Rural Health Conference brings together health workers to discuss key issues facing rural healthcare. This year’s conference, which took place in Taupō in April, saw over 400 professionals, administrators and students gather to face hot topics in the rural health sector, including burnout, COVID-19, telehealth, and Māori health and wellbeing.

MAS provided scholarships for three undergraduate nursing students to attend the conference this year, funding their registration, travel and accommodation. MAS also provided a coffee cart to ensure the delegates were well-caffeinated.

The scholarship winners were Emma Faulkner-Barclay, who is studying a Diploma in Enrolled Nursing at Otago Polytechnic, Tammy Heremaia, who is studying a Bachelor of Pacific Nursing at Manukau Institute of Technology, and Caitlin Alexander, who is studying a Bachelor of Nursing at Otago Polytechnic.

Emma Faulkner-Barclay (right) and delegates at the National Rural Health Conference

Emma Faulkner-Barclay (right) and delegates at the National Rural Health Conference

Opportunities to connect

Emma says the conference helped give her a better understanding of the ecosystem around delivering rural health care.

“I learnt how truly important every member of a healthcare team is to care. Different scopes of practice are important too - it's not only the doctors who can make a big difference, each team member is responsible for part of the care, including support services and nurses.”

Emma says what she learned at the conference has inspired her to focus on going above and beyond in her studies, and “to always put in a little bit extra, even if it's not required for the class because it may inform my practice. It's not only about passing the course for me - it's about being the best nurse I can be.”

Caitlin enjoyed the opportunity to connect with other health students and professionals who share her passion for eliminating the barriers to accessing healthcare in rural communities.

“It was a privilege to attend the 2021 National Rural Health Conference. It highlighted to me some of the struggles that rural health workers are facing today, such as lack of funding, staff and access to emergency healthcare.

“I now have a much greater appreciation for rural health workers and everything that they do for our rural communities here in New Zealand.”

Caitlin says hearing stories of her father’s childhood in the remote Scottish Highlands means she’s aware of the unique challenges that rural communities face.

“I grew up hearing about the barriers that many communities in these regions face surrounding access to healthcare and quality community health advice.”

Caitlin Alexander (right) at the National Rural Health Conference

Caitlin Alexander (right) at the National Rural Health Conference

The future of rural healthcare

Caitlin says the chance to connect to other health professionals gave her valuable insight into the possibility of a career in rural healthcare.

“This conference has equipped me with valuable skills and knowledge that I will apply in my practice as a nursing student and maybe one day as a rural practice nurse. Having the chance to network with like-minded people from a variety of backgrounds and professions was incredibly beneficial in developing my skill set too.”

Emma says it gave her an understanding of the major issues facing rural healthcare professionals.

“Firstly, a lack of staff in places they are needed, which causes the current staff to burnout and leave the profession. There is also the problem of incorrect information and a lack of communication between district health boards. Finally, transport and access to supplies and equipment in rural areas is massively disproportionate to larger city areas.”

Caitlin says attending the conference has cemented her desire to elevate rural healthcare in this country.

“I’m committed to contributing to our population’s health in any way I can, and this stands particularly true for rural healthcare. I would love nothing more than to contribute to eliminating barriers for communities.”

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