Striving for change in the bush


In this second part of a two-part series on mentoring, we speak with the national chair of the Rural Advisory Committee, Ellen McMaster, about some of the challenges of and opportunities for mentoring in the rural setting. 

As many physiotherapists in private practice in rural and remote settings are sole operators, the need for mentoring and making professional connections is great.

However, says Ellen McMaster, opportunities for mentoring beyond the immediate professional community have historically been out of reach of many practitioners.

‘In rural practice you very much need to be a generalist physiotherapist.

'Often you’re the only one covering multiple settings across age groups, trying to work with the public health system, Aboriginal medical services and the private health networks.

'This includes navigating WorkCover, MBS, DVA and NDIS systems,’ Ellen says.

‘And there is a lack of mentoring in rural areas as well as a very great need for it.’

Ellen, who ran her private practice in rural New South Wales for 24 years before closing up the business during the COVID-19 pandemic last year, says she acknowledges that clinicians can feel isolated while working in metropolitan private practices.

However, she says that those in less populated regions of the country have been at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to professional support and accessing mentoring opportunities.

Recalling her own experiences when starting out with her practice, Ellen says that historically, many rural sole practitioners had challenges accessing the broad range of clinical courses needed to effectively cover the very specific demands of rural communities.

Identifying and accessing mentors in clinical work as well as in leadership, community engagement, grant applications and working with committees could also be problematic in rural and remote regions.

‘Whenever I have done any professional development I have maintained and built networks with the people who were willing to support me in rural practice.

'Generally, the people who are experts in their field are more than happy to share their expertise,’ Ellen says.

‘It’s just really difficult to find a mentor and to sustain that relationship when you have other things going on in your life that may reduce the importance of your career for a while, such as starting a family.’

The APA recently announced the pilot launch of two new mentoring programs, the APA Graduate Mentoring Program and APA Mentoring Connections.

Both programs are free and only available for APA members.

Mentees and mentors for the pilot of our Graduate Mentoring Program are being sought now, while applications for Mentoring Connections will open soon.

The APA Graduate Mentoring Program is an eight-month venture that is designed to support and inspire those who are the future of the profession.

Participants will be supported throughout the program at key intervals with videos and group webinars.

Mentees and mentors meet when convenient (the expectation is once per month) and via a means that suits them.

APA Mentoring Connections will be an on-demand program for Ahpra-registered APA members at various career stages and is designed to support members with different needs.

Areas covered include case-specific advice, rural and regional connection, preparing to re-enter the workforce after an extended absence and reaching your full potential as a physiotherapist in Australia.

Ellen says that the professional isolation felt by many rural and regional practitioners has been reduced by access to resources now available online, such as professional development, conferences and opportunities to connect with mentors.

Now the challenge is navigating the resources and support that matches need.

Where previously many sole practitioners would have had to close their business for a day or longer to attend a face-to-face course in a metropolitan area, the availability of online learning has changed that landscape dramatically.

‘Face-to-face training remains highly important in the discipline of physiotherapy and the operational challenges of accessing high-quality training remain, such as sourcing a locum for time away, cost factors and family dynamics,’ she says.

‘That’s a really big change that’s happened in my lifetime, the accessibility of information and connection using the internet.

'Not only can you connect, find a physio or Google a private physiotherapy practice, you can get on the phone or connect with them via email, SMS or other social media.

'You can link directly with the experts via Twitter and have instant access to research and journals.

'Applying technology is a new skill in itself, as well as setting up new boundaries to ensure we maintain work-life balance.

'Mentoring is individualised support for me to be the best I can be and to provide a broader perspective than what may be available within one’s day-to-day world.’

She says that initiatives such as the APA mentoring programs will help foster the ability to make deep, lasting professional connections with experts in the field, something that has traditionally been a challenge in rural and regional areas.

‘For example, you might have recently completed a course, but you might not use that information for six months.

'Then when you see a patient with that particular problem, you need to review your course notes but you might need to talk through the case with a mentor to refresh and consolidate learning,’ she says.

‘You also form a connection with the people who attended the course and a connection with the people who delivered the course—they potentially become part of your network of mentors.

'And you pick and choose who would be the most helpful for getting the support that you need.

‘The move towards having a formal mentorship network and program would be particularly beneficial for sole physiotherapists who are working out there in busy practices in rural areas.

'But mentoring or being mentored is something you have to make time for.

'And if they are engaged in reflective practice, it would be beneficial to have a formal plan in place.

'That doesn’t always happen in every practice.’

Physiotherapists working in rural and regional areas are encouraged to reach out and connect via the many tools available to them through the APA, such as the national APA Rural Physiotherapy Australia Facebook page, which Ellen says has quite a large membership.

‘A lot of the issues in rural areas are to do with the workforce, recruitment and sustainability of service.

'So reaching out via the APA… we’re trying to improve our mentorship and I hope that in the future there will be a network where we can match people to more experienced clinicians who would be willing to provide support with mentorship.

‘Physiotherapists are survivors.

'We have great problem-solving skills.

'Never underestimate the value of what you’re doing in rural practice.

'But you’re not an island,’ she says.

‘We do have the internet, we do have telephones and we do have other people who are in similar situations, but it’s really important for your professional practice to make time for yourself to be reflective, set goals and have that support.

'This will help you work your way through issues as well as keep sight of the big picture and ensure supports are in place for when the going gets tough… building professional resilience, important for not only surviving but thriving in rural practice.

'Physiotherapy is a great profession; we’re a team and we are providing the services that Australians need.’

Click here for more information about the APA mentoring programs.


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