Meet Ruth Stewart - Australia's 'first lady' of Rural Health

By Melinda McCarthy published on 18/08/2020 Rural Generalism /

The appointment of medical practitioner and researcher Associate Professor Ruth Stewart as the new National Rural Health Commissioner, was a smart move by the government and one welcomed by the team at Ochre. An articulate and passionate advocate for rural health, Ruth has spent her entire clinical practice working in small country towns, agricultural and farming districts and with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

In our brief conversation she spoke of her love for rural medicine and immediate priorities during the first year of her tenure as National Rural Health Commissioner.

“One of the first real focuses for me is to change the discourse around rural health. So often the conversation is centred on the things that aren’t there, but when you look at what’s there—the positives—when you have lived it, the picture looks very different,” Ruth states.

And she’s quite correct. Talk to any rural generalist and they’ll tell you how rewarding, fulfilling, and frankly hectic working in rural and remote communities really is. It's for the classic all-rounder types with a proper hunger for medicine. You could deliver a baby in the early hours of the morning at the local hospital before returning to your clinic for a cornucopia of presentations, some suffering from chronic disease, others struggling with depression, capped off with an AMS outreach clinic one day a week.

When you add lifestyle and culture, affordable housing, no traffic, fresh produce and the chance to be a part of a community where you’re truly valued and appreciated, it’s hard to believe that we still have such a significant shortage of doctors in regional Australia. Statistically, we have plenty of doctors, but too few are going bush.

The federal and state governments are looking at key employment reforms for undergraduates and those in their postgraduate medical training. Stewart believes that incentives to keep doctors in training in rural centres for longer will lead to a higher percentage of people remaining “in the bush” once they have their Fellowship.

“We’ve placed too much importance on centres of excellence in cities whereas it’s the rural clinical schools that are the real leaders in medical education and innovation. Because Australia has been pre-occupied with specialisation, we’ve failed our rural and remote communities,” Stewart says.

“If you are a doctor trained in a large teaching hospital, of course you feel safe there. You are always surrounded by your peers and naturally you are more inclined to want to stay where you feel safe.”

Stewart spoke fondly of the Rural Clinical Schools Program (RCS) which was launched in 2000 to enable medical students to undertake extended blocks of their training in regional areas.

“Giving students the opportunity to step away from training solely in large metropolitan based hospitals and exposing them to rural clinical practice has significant and far-reaching effects on where these students will end up practising in the long term.”

Providing students with lengthy opportunities in rural practice during their undergraduate and postgraduate training gives them a chance to develop the broad and advanced set of generalist skills required to make them feel “safe” in a rural setting. The more confident they become, the more rewarded and satisfied they feel, the more likely they will be to stay “in the bush”.

We wish the delightful Ruth Stewart all the very best in her new position as National Rural Health Commissioner and thank her for her candour.

Ochre Recruitment provides wide-ranging Rural GP jobs, which you can browse here. 

For further information, please contact our Rural GP recruitment specialist Veronica O'Riordan.

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