Rural Health Workforce Australia is the peak body for the state and territory Rural Workforce Agencies. Our not-for-profit Network attracts, recruits and supports health professionals for rural and remote communities.

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Dietitian goes rural and offers food for thought

Dietitian Emma Bohringer's career has taken some interesting turns since arriving in Tamworth three years ago. She initially worked in private practice with a team of doctors, nurses and allied health professionals - receiving support along the way from the NSW Rural Doctors Network through the Rural Health Professionals Programme.

Underscoring the diverse opportunities in rural Australia, she has now taken on a clinical role with the diabetes service at Tamworth Rural Referral Hospital. Emma also lectures in nutrition and dietetics at the University of Newcastle's rural health department in Tamworth, where she is keen to encourage the next generation of rural dietitians.

Read about her journey and the need for dietitians in rural Australia...

What attracted you to work in Tamworth?

I first came to Tamworth in my final year of uni to complete my hospital and community placements as well as my honours research project describing the dietetic services in two rural oncology clinics. The honours project gave me a taste of the barriers faced by rural people who need to travel to access specialist medical services for an acute or chronic disease. I was excited to return six months after finishing uni to join the rural workforce and help those people improve their health. Plus I wanted to see what the Tamworth Country Music Festival was all about!

Why are dietitians needed in rural areas?

More dietitians are needed everywhere to tackle the growing rates of obesity and chronic diet-related diseases. But the need in rural and remote areas specifically is fairly obvious when you look at the statistics. The prevalence of overweight and obesity increases by degrees of remoteness, and we know that obesity is associated with an increased risk of chronic diseases including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and some cancers. 

Compared to metropolitan areas, rural and remote regions have a higher proportion of older people and a higher proportion of Indigenous Australians - other demographics associated with higher rates of chronic disease. With risk factors like these, coupled with socioeconomic factors, the scope for the dietetic workforce in rural and remote is huge.

How important was the support you received from the NSW Rural Doctors Network?

It was invaluable. As a new graduate stepping into the world of private practice, you quickly realise there is a lot you haven't learnt at uni. The RHPP package was a huge advantage that provided financial assistance to attend a number of important professional development workshops, conferences and seminars. At the time, I was working as a general dietitian in a community based practice with a varied case load. The opportunity to meet and learn from some of the most experienced dietitians and other health professionals so early in my career was such a privilege.

What has going rural done for your career?

I've found that you can encounter a variety of cases on any given day. This can be a challenge, but certainly puts the onus on you to keep up to date with the latest information in a range of general areas. There are about 18 dietitians in Tamworth and more in the surrounding areas across Hunter New England. They work in various roles including private practice, clinical, community and research. There is a great deal of support and opportunities for professional development, so I am certainly not professionally isolated.  

Earlier this year, after three years working in private practice, I commenced a maternity leave position in academia with the University of Newcastle department of rural health, and a clinical role with the diabetes service at Tamworth Rural Referral Hospital. So there are still opportunities for career progression in rural areas.

Describe your current role at the University of Newcastle and the work you are doing with students.

The department of rural health takes large numbers of medical, nursing and allied health students throughout different stages of their degrees across our four locations in Tamworth, Armidale, Taree and Moree. This year we supported 43 nutrition and dietetics students in the second and fourth year of their degrees through a combined total of 495 placement weeks in Tamworth and the surrounding New England region.

The students live in Tamworth for varying times depending on the length of their placement, with some staying for a whole semester, or the academic year as I did in my final year of study. We encourage the students to participate in various cultural and community activities that promote better health and disease prevention for local people.

Students also participate in inter-disciplinary learning activities to increase their knowledge of and ability to work with other health professions.

It is great to work with a team of health professionals who are passionate about improving the health of people living in rural and remote areas, and to hear so much positive feedback from the students about their placement experience, especially from those who were initially reluctant to go rural.

What's the best advice for students and health professionals considering a career in the bush?

You have got nothing to lose and everything to gain by giving it a go. A career in rural dietetics can be very rewarding, satisfying and enjoyable. Even if someone is not considering living in a rural area, I think it is important to at least experience a rural placement to gain a greater perspective of life outside the city. And who knows, you might just love it!

Posted: December 2015