Kicking goals for regional health

Dr Carol McKinstry is transforming healthcare, one student at a time

By Dr Giselle Roberts

Dr Carol McKinstry, Head of the Department of Rural Allied Health at La Trobe Bendigo, has devoted her career to bringing education and healthcare to regional Victoria; training allied health professionals in the region, for the region.

McKinstry has purpose, good humour and a steadfast belief in opportunity. She is also keenly aware of the nuances and challenges associated with country life. “These are hard times for central northeast Victoria,” said McKinstry. “In areas like Rochester, families who have worked in the region for generations are now selling their farms. Optimism is shrinking. Many young people, particularly boys, do not have aspirations to go to university.”

It’s something Dr Carol McKinstry is working to change. I sat down with her to talk about transforming healthcare, one student at a time.

GISELLE ROBERTS: Carol, tell me about your life. What drew you to a career in allied health?

CAROL McKINSTRY: I grew up just outside Bendigo. I was one of those kids who was always playing sport and, by high school, I was contemplating a career in physiotherapy. A neighbour who was a geriatrician asked if I might consider occupational therapy (OT) instead. I associated it with craft therapy and I am not good at craft! But I decided to spend a day with her at work to find out more. I talked to several OTs, learned more about what they do and thought, “Wow, this is fantastic.” I completed my training at the Lincoln Institute in Melbourne and moved back to Bendigo to work in rehabilitation and, later, acute care. After a Master’s, a PhD and some time working in quality and risk management, I joined La Trobe in 2005.

GR: Tell me, what do OTs do?

CM: They find therapeutic solutions to help people participate in the things they have to do on a daily basis, like getting up, making breakfast, eating breakfast and preparing for work. OTs also help people with recreational activities. They get people back to work, but they also help them to play sport again.

GR: And OTs help people of all ages, in various circumstances.

CM: Exactly. My youngest patient was a two-day-old premature baby – I made a tiny splint to keep her hand open so that it developed properly – and I have worked with people who sustained injuries at work or in car accidents. Patients sometimes recover well in hospital and then go home to discover a new set of challenges. I have developed therapies for patients at home and, when they are ready, I have completed workplace assessments to get them back to their job on the farm, at the bank, or the chicken factory. Getting people back to work or getting them back to the things they love to do is very satisfying.

GR: And, to add another layer to this, you have focused on the education of rural health professionals.

CM: Yes. I believe in providing education for kids from regional and rural areas which, in turn, creates a rural workforce. There was such a shortage of OT professionals in regional Victoria when Professor Amanda Kenny and I established this course in 2009. We have been able to address that problem head-on; up to 95% of our students are from rural and regional areas. We have extremely high employment outcomes, with most students choosing to stay rural and regional. I am so proud of that.

GR: Tell me some of your success stories.

CM: One of the really pleasing outcomes is seeing so many of our graduates go into mental health. That was one of our goals in the beginning and it has been a great success. Our graduates are leading the way in organisations like Headspace, which specialises in youth mental health. There’s a branch in Bendigo and now one in Swan Hill. Many of our graduates also work in rehabilitation. One established her own dance company where she teaches kids with special needs. Along with developing a pool of talented health professionals, we need to grow social and leadership capital in rural and regional Australia. Our graduates have the potential to do just that.

GR: And in that area, you lead by example. I noticed you were the first woman Chair of the Bendigo Football Netball League.

CM: Yes, that’s been really interesting. I have seen several footballers with serious head injuries and I am committed to minimising the number of injuries on the field. I believe in investing in the community. I encourage my staff and students to get involved and give back to their communities. Rural and regional areas have a real leadership deficit, and allied health and health professionals have an important part to play. The students we are training may indeed become the future leaders of their communities.

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