Fail fast & Retry, Retry & Retry again… Rural health professional tenacity in a nutshell

I heard a leading rural public health professor speak last night (at the Robb College (@robbcollege) annual Health Lecture and Dinner  – University of New England @healthune) about the challenges and opportunities that exist in rural and regional health in Australia and across the world. I was spurred on… motivated… inspired… to keep pressing forward in contributing to rural health progress. Professor Ian Wronski, Deputy Vice Chancellor  – James Cook University, shared some of what he has learnt along the way while working in public health in rural Australia.

Some of what got me thinking…

  • When you get stuck without many resources… try new things!
  • Rural politics… often not enough marginal seats to attract funding and resources…
  • Sustainability in the primary care workforce is vital for the health of rural communities. Not limited to a sending-in style of health care delivery… but embedding and internally generating health workforce within rural communities.

My entire health career has been played out in rural committees… These three points struck a chord with me because they aligned with what I know of rural communities. A dollar, please, for every time I have had to innovate my practice because the oily rag needed to be squeezed a little tighter!

Trying new things is something that rural people are good at! Using our strengths! That is, the skills that are so much second nature to us that we sometimes forget that they are indeed special skills. Trying something new, and finding a way to make something work, finding the work-around solution, finding a new way using the resources we have at hand… that is innate rural culture. That is… what rural people do extremely well… but of course – there are limits!

Rural people conduct themselves resourcefully. They are not wasteful of resources because they work hard to obtain the resources that are carefully matched to the needs, ensuring they get the last drop of ‘oil out of the rag’. They make do!  Where I grew up we had one (thinking back – very small!) water tank to collect rain water for household use. Nobody wasted a drop – it was valuable, it was used wisely and recycled where possible. Never a tap was left to drip… the sentiment permeates and translates to rural life and culture in general. I think these are key characteristics of rural people and communities, and these attributes help to make up the social capital and the human ecology of rural communities. I have written a bit about that...  and have explored the contributions that nurses in particular make to the mental health care of young rural people.

There is something to be said about the dynamics of rural politics though. Political pressures underpin resources allocation for public health and especially in regard to mental health of rural people. The national and state spend on rural mental health (or mental health generally) is consistently poor. Nationally this bears out with a stable suicide rate over the past ten years  – not a reduction… but rather a complacent stability, with rural communities bearing a disproportionate burden. The reality is that many rural political seats are ‘safe’… and one of the limitations that is associated with this political condition impacts adversely on public health resource allocation. It is a bit like the water tank of my childhood never benefiting from sufficient rains to fill it up… and for us constantly monitoring the water level by tapping the sides of the tank to listen for the tympanic changes to signal volume levels.   Worrying about how much water was left and guessing how far it might need to go before the rain came again… reducing our use to reflect the remaining residue, and not having enough to do anything extra. I could still show you the corrugation groove around the one third full mark that changed the mood in our family to austere use of water and restrictions for our family – indelibly marked in my psyche! When the rain doesn’t fall in the rural mental health budget – there is never enough resource to do the prevention, mental health promotion and early intervention care because those elements of health care provision can be thought of as when the tank is only one third full – so restrictions need to heeded and the valuable resource only used for the most serious circumstances – often too little, too late. But – in marginal seats – it appears that the weather forecast is often more promising… Try someone new might be a good rural political slogan for the future… ?

Professor Wronski had Six Tips to enhance rural public health:

1. Invest in locally driven solutions because local proximity to the problem drives finding solutions. (Rural people are close to the problem so they are likely to also be close to the solution)

2. Take intellectual risks. (Think about things and then do things!)

3. Use evidence to drive decision making. (Not whims and hunches… but take the time and effort to generate and gather the evidence  – then apply it!)

4. Fail fast and use it to learn from. Then, Retry, Retry and Retry again. (Fail fast… I like that… but don’t give up especially if you are doing 3 & 4 above… learn more – try again… love it!)

5. Facilitate collaboration and co-creation. (Working together) 

6. Identify scalable solutions that will have disproportionate impacts as you scale them up. (‘From little things – big things grow’)

A lot of good advice! Some good signposts for keeping public health on track  – out back!


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