Jennifer Doggett reports from Darwin:

A picture of a mouldy lettuce and tired looking carrot selling for $6 in a remote area of Australia was a powerful reminder to delegates at #ruralhealthconf of the challenges involved in rural and remote health.

Professor Alan Cass from the Menzies School of Health Research used this example to compare the cost and quality of fresh and healthy food available in many rural areas of Australia with that available in the cities.

He stressed that unless barriers to healthy living, such as the cost of fresh food, are addressed, rural Australians will continue to experience poorer health outcomes than those living in urban areas.

Professor Cass also described how failure to address these underlying determinants of health can result in inter-generational and community-wide problems.

For example, poor maternal nutrition can lead to low birthweight babies, who then have a 70% higher risk of having kidney disease as adults.  Over time, this results in the epidemic of kidney disease seen today in many Indigenous communities.

Breaking this cycle requires addressing the underlying ‘healthy lifestyle deficit’ in rural communities, including access to fresh food, secure housing and employment and recreational opportunities.

But as a number of presentations at #ruralhealthconf today made clear, health interventions cannot be successful without an understanding of the intricate connection between people and place in rural Australia.  This is particularly important for programs and services targeting Indigenous Australians.

From children from the Kintore community in the Northern Territory singing about the ‘colours of my country’ as part of a trachoma-reduction health promotion project, to doctors describing the challenges of delivering resuscitation services during eight hour retrieval flights across Western Australia, delegates at #ruralhealthconf were repeatedly reminded of the important influence of place on both the health challenges faced by communities and their solutions.

The role of the arts in connecting people in rural areas with their communities and cultures in order to address health challenges was also highlighted today at the conference.

In a keynote address, Kathy Burns, Director of Barkly Regional Arts, described how the arts can help Indigenous Australians walk in two worlds and preserve stories and language which might otherwise be lost.  She provided examples of how her organisation is linking traditional arts with mainstream culture to promote health and well-being in local communities.

One example outlined in her presentation is the ‘story plate’ project, funded by the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).  This project has worked with Indigenous people to create paintings on plates reflecting on their beliefs and experience of disability.

This forms part of an ongoing component of the NDIS focussed on collaborating with Indigenous communities to identify and support people with disabilities.

Red Dust Role Models provided a number of examples of how the arts are being used to address specific health challenges in rural communities though collaborating with schools to produce music videos.  These videos showcase songs written and performed by local children and focus on key health challenges identified by the communities themselves.

A specific example of the role of the arts in health research was provided by Sally Josh, from Southern NSW Local Health District, whose research uses patient drawings to capture the experience of health care.  She found that the drawings produced by patients were a valuable resource in communicating aspects of their experience not always obtained through other forms of information gathering.

Performing arts was the focus of the presentation by the Starlight Foundation which addresses another challenge faced by many rural and remote families in travelling long distances to access healthcare.

Ralph Hampson, Head of Research and Evaluation, described how waiting times for treatment can often be longer in rural and remote areas as services are in greater demand and their capacity is limited.  For many children from small and remote communities even the experience of visiting buildings with multiple stories, air conditioning and escalators/lifts can be frightening.

He outlined how the Starlight Foundation employs young people with performing arts backgrounds as ‘Captain Starlights’ to keep children from rural and remote communities entertained while they wait for care and to make the experience of accessing health care more positive for them.

In between sessions, delegates have been visiting the My Sister’s Kitchen installation to hear the stories told my migrant and refugee women who collaborate on this project through sharing their knowledge and experience of cooking, weaving and other skills.

The women involved describe how their participation in this project has helped them link their home culture with that of their new life in Australia and address the many challenges involved with migration and re-settlement.

Other examples of the role of the arts in rural and remote health care showcased at #ruralhealthconf include the photography and poetry exhibitions which feature the work of talented delegates and National Rural Health Alliance members from all areas of Australia.

Delegates can vote for their favourites in the competition or just enjoy the evocative images and rich texts displayed.

And some tweet reports from other sessions today

On women’s health

On young people and sexual health

On wide-ranging topics

Focus on health in the region

Arts and health were in the frame


And here’s a word picture to reflect upon

Was this the pic of the day?

Hats off to the #ruralhealthconf tweeters doing such a great job – and special thanks to Alison Fairleigh’s non-stop tweeting for @WePublicHealth

Track Croakey’s conference coverage here.



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