Championing rural health

Professor Jane Mills, Dean and Head of the La Trobe Rural Health School, talks about why rural health matters

By Dr Giselle Roberts

Jane Mills understands rural health like few people do. A rural nurse by training, she has worked in every conceivable setting, from Tasmania’s remote west coast to far north Queensland. Somewhere between a Bachelor of Nursing and a PhD, Mills lived on a cattle station, raised two children and, without a reliable internet connection “or even a mobile phone” to support remote study, became an international expert on community nursing, mentoring and workforce development.

Mills is practical and forthright, and rural health informs everything she does. Appointed Dean and Head of the La Trobe Rural Health School in mid-2020, she commenced her role at the height of the pandemic, rolling up her sleeves to navigate unprecedented operational challenges and forge a new way forward. And while it may have been a baptism of fire, it galvanised Mills’ determination to lead a school that “makes rural health and wellbeing matter.”

“We are all grappling with the economic and social effects of the pandemic,” she says reflectively. “These issues are magnified in rural Australia because of the size of the population, the industries that are embedded in our communities and the very different way that regions operate. Working hand in glove with government will be critical to our recovery. But the Rural Health School also has an opportunity here, to become more relevant and valued because of the way we respond during times of great local and national challenge.”

That commitment came to the fore during the pandemic. The School prioritised support for its regional health partners, loaning specialist medical equipment including syringe pumps, non-tough thermometers and respirators. They kept clinical placements going to shore up the rural workforce pipeline. And, they rolled out a new range of short courses and micro-credentials to upskill health professionals. They met an untapped need: a staggering 300 students enrolled in the Graduate Certificate in Mental Health alone.

This steadfast commitment to community and social justice was a big drawcard for Mills in making the decision to accept one of the most prestigious academic positions in Australian rural health. “I am very clear in my own mind about the kinds of universities I like to work for,” she says. “A strong social justice agenda is important, along with a genuine desire to make a difference. If I am going to invest a lot of time and energy at work, then I want to make sure I’m doing it for an organisation I believe in.”

Mills is now settling into Bendigo’s rhythm and rural health landscape, making important in-person connections with the staff and stakeholders she had only previously met online. She enters 2021 with an innovative strategy that aims to make the biggest rural health school in Australia, the best rural health school, as measured by student success and research outcomes.

“We will continue to build Australia’s rural health workforce by offering a distinctive student experience that combines generalist knowledge with the unique skills required of rural professionals,” Mills explains. “Our graduates will be well positioned to make a positive difference to the health and wellbeing of rural people. They will be digitally literate and culturally safe, and understand what it means to serve their community.”

“And, our researchers will bring together the right expertise to translate results into practical applications. We need to step back, look at the bigger picture, and ask, ‘Is this the best care that we can deliver?’ For us, research impact will be demonstrated by the improved health and wellbeing of rural people. Our strengths in rural ageing, workforce development, primary health care and community health will also be enhanced through strong partnerships with First Nations’ staff, communities and external organisations.”

Mills believes that championing the rural perspective – “how rural people think and operate” – will be key to the School’s success. “Rural people understand that connectedness can be long lasting,” she says. “Rural people connect in ways that don’t have to be formally arranged, like at the shops or a sporting event. They may sing in a choir or go to church together. A blurring between work and home happens, which creates a feeling of shared cause, particularly around health and wellbeing. Rural health matters to us because we are rural people.”

“Through our teaching and research outcomes, we will take our message about rural health to state and federal governments, to health partners in major metropolitan centres, and to urban Australians who may not understand the different strategies and investment needed to succeed in this space.”

“The La Trobe Rural Health School is ready for this and I am here to give it a big push,” Mills adds. “We are on the verge of great things. My vision is that we will be recognised as Australia’s preeminent rural health school and make a real difference to the communities we serve.”