As the photos below illustrate, all roads lead to Darwin this month for the 13th National Rural Health Conference, which Jennifer Doggett will be attending and covering for the Croakey Conference Reporting Service.

In previewing the conference below, she reports that #NRHC15 is being held in difficult times for those with a concern for a fair distribution of health. The hashtag #ruralhealthconf is also being used.


Jennifer Doggett writes: 

With a health policy forecast best described as ‘uncertain’, the upcoming 13th National Rural Health Conference will play an important role in bringing together political, policy and health service leaders to engage with people from across the spectrum of the health system on the real issues affecting the future of our health system.

As National Rural Health Alliance CEO Gordon Gregory has written in Croakey, the health policy debate since the last election has been dominated by the debate over the proposed $5 GP co-payment.

Broader and more substantial issues affecting the future of our health system, such as equity and access to health care, quality of care and the need for workforce reform, have been out of the political spotlight and progress made in these areas in recent years appears to have stalled or even reversed.

With a depleted bureaucracy, the closure of a number of health agencies and a lack of political direction, it has been difficult for those working in the health sector to feel that their efforts are having any traction at a political or policy level.

In Indigenous health, the situation has been even more difficult, with an estimated total of $270 million cut from Indigenous primary health care services and chronic disease self-management programmes at a crucial point in their development.  This has occurred within an overall environment of stress and uncertainty for the Indigenous health sector at the federal level, compounded in some areas by state government actions, such as the threat of forced closure of remote communities in Western Australia.

While the recent announcement of the successful tenderers to run Primary Health Networks (PHNs) has clarified one area of uncertainty, there are still many unanswered questions about the role of these new organisations and the future direction of primary health care.  Particularly in rural areas, it will be critical that the transition from Medicare Locals to PHNs is managed smoothly and efficiently, taking into account and building on the substantial work already done to assess community needs and priorities and identify service gaps.

Networking opportunities
In this environment, opportunities for people working in the health sector to network with others and engage with key decision makers from the bureaucracy, political and private sectors are more valuable than ever before.  One such opportunity open to people from all sectors of the health system is the upcoming National Rural Health Conference (NRHC15), hosted by the National Rural Health Alliance.

Held once every two years, the National Rural Health Conference is one of the largest and most diverse conferences on health issues held in Australia and a fixture on the calendar for anyone working in rural health.

However, it is a mistake to think that the conference is only relevant to people working in rural areas.  Like previous National Rural Health Conferences, NRHC15 will provide valuable networking, educational and professional development opportunities for people from both urban and rural backgrounds.

This year’s conference, held in Darwin from the 24-27 May, has the theme People, Places, Possibilities, and encompasses issues affecting all areas of the health system, including coordination of care, resource management, workforce innovation, community engagement, the role of information technology in the health system, Indigenous health and social justice.

The high profile of this conference is apparent from the quality of speakers, including both Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash, who is giving the opening address, and Shadow Assistant Minister for Health Stephen Jones who is attending the conference and speaking at the final plenary session.

There is an impressive line-up of keynote speakers, including:

For the first time this year, the Conference will also look beyond our national borders to encompass health issues affecting our region and neighbouring countries, such as Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste, Tuvalu and Palau.  Stand-out sessions from this stream will be the address by Dr Peter Macdonald, President and Founder of Australian Doctors International on his work in Papua New Guinea and the presentations on emerging infectious diseases in our Asia-Pacific region, including responses to the drug-resistant TB epidemic.

Each day there are ten streams of break-out sessions on issues such as: mental health, youth health, quality use of medicines, healthy ageing, responding to natural disasters, children living with disability, Indigenous health, TeleHealth, rural hospitals, sexual and reproductive health and high performing services.  A small sample of these diverse sessions include presentations on:

  • Delivering online physiotherapy using video games;
  • Nurse practitioner led services in primary health care;
  • An eHealth solution to childhood behavioural disorders;
  • Facilitating improvements in the work-life balance of Directors of Nursing; and
  • Smarter, safer homes for older Australians: providing feasible, virtual in-home care.

More than a talk-fest
Like previous National Rural Health Conferences, this year’s event is more than just a talk-fest.  It is structured to enable meaningful input from all participants through mechanisms such as the online ‘Sharing Shed’ where conference delegates contribute to the writing and ranking of Conference recommendations.  These are taken to a plenary session where all delegates can have input into the final Communiqué and set of priority recommendations that will be taken to governments and others in a position to respond.

Also, providing opportunities for delegate participation are three special colloquiums, designed for maximum interaction from participants and structured to result in strong and practice recommendations for action. These will focus on men’s health, broadband for the bush and planning and managing rural health services.

The role of the arts in health and well-being, often marginalised or ignored at health conferences and forums, has a dedicated stream at NRHC 15.  This includes interactive workshops on Indigenous cultural and health activities, such as pandanus weaving and a ‘pop up’ gallery from Barkly Regional Arts, based in Tennant Creek.

Film, dance, music and a theatre performance exploring the issue of organ donation, by Artback NT in conjunction with Donate Life, are some other important features of the arts stream.

The importance of food in culture and health is also recognised through the ‘Feast of Stories’ presentation by My Sister’s Kitchen which follows the journey of women from refugee and migrant backgrounds through the lens of food and cooking.  Central to this stream is a roundtable discussion on the National Framework for Arts and Health.

In addition to the sessions on Indigenous health outlined above, the conference provides valuable opportunities for delegates to experience Indigenous cultures firsthand with an optional excursion to Darwin’s oldest town camp, Bagot Indigenous Community to meet with community members, including the carers and children at the community’s out of school hours child care service.

Anyone curious about bush tucker can attend a session on “What does ‘Bush Tucker’ really mean to Australian Indigenous people?” which includes fascinating stories about Larrakia food from an expert in the Darwin region and sampling opportunities.

For those able to arrive a day or so earlier, there are four pre-conference workshops being held on the Friday and Saturday. These include a Trauma Care Workshop providing high quality trauma training for first responders, a Rural Emergency Skills Training workshop and Rural Emergency Obstetrics Training workshop, both run by the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine and a bus tour to Nauiyu Nambiyu Community.

On the Sunday before the start of the conference, delegates can also attend a range of workshops, including sessions on using social media, the National Disability Insurance Scheme and cultural responsiveness in the health sector.

Given the current climate of uncertainty and with so many areas of health care in a state of flux, there can be no better time to bring together people from all over the country to discuss, debate, workshop, network and collectively agree on the priorities to take our health system forward.

Health professionals, managers, policy makers, researchers and others interested in obtaining more information about the National Rural Health Conference can find a detailed program and registration facilities on the conference website

Those who are unable to attend this year’s conference can follow it via Twitter on the hashtag #NRHC15 or check the conference website. 


Meanwhile, some #NRHC15 participants are already on the road…


• Track Croakey’s coverage of the conference here. 

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