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Working remote as a physiotherapist

Photo: Rob Curry worked in the Northern Territory for 30
Melbourne-trained physiotherapist Rob Curry wanted a bush lifestyle - one far away from the daily grind of the commute to work at a metropolitan physiotherapy practice.

“I was interested in the bush and a rural life, as a philosophical approach rather than living in a city and all of the things that that entails,” he says.

Rob ventured to Port Lincoln in South Australia and had a brief stint working in Queensland before moving to Darwin in late 1983.

Rob went on to spend 30 years working in the Northern Territory, mostly practising as a physiotherapist in Aboriginal communities outside of Darwin.

“I liked Darwin straight away,” he says.

“I worked several years at the Royal Darwin Hospital and then in about 1990 I took the remote physio job working in Aboriginal communities.

“I did that for about a decade, travelling from Darwin to remote communities like Maningrida, Tiwi Islands, Oenpelli - those sorts of places.

“That was a flying job really - lots of flying in light aircraft or driving 4WD vehicles and occasionally boats to get to places.”

At the time, Rob was the only physiotherapist for about 14,000 people living in remote communities.

He would visit the larger communities every few months, spending a few days in each area, prioritising his practice and focusing on aged care and disability care.

“As a physio it was a bit frustrating really because I would have liked to have worked more on the sports injuries of the people out there because remote Aboriginal people play a lot of footy and a lot of sport,” he says.

“The main problems were people with disabilities and people who had strokes or lost limbs or who had other major injuries or illnesses.

“They were the things I really had to prioritise as being the things that would either mean that people would end up in hospital, either if they didn’t get some physiotherapeutic input or sometimes people would pass away because they had lacked independent movement.

“They would get pressure sores or chest infections or something like that and ultimately end up in hospital or pass away.

“Disabled kids was a real focus - kids who have had head injuries or meningitis or some other developmental problem.

“They were really the priority health issues - it meant people could either stay living in the community or would have to go to hospital or go to some sort of institution or aged care facility in Darwin.”

Rob recalls treating and assisting an older Aboriginal woman with arthritis and deformities as a result of leprosy, who found it incredibly difficult to walk.

Rob worked with a clinic in Darwin to develop and trial a motorised buggy for the woman.

“She needed one that could get across sand reasonably easy because it was quite sandy where she lived,” he says.

“She was a beautiful old woman and it was worth working with her on that.

“Eventually we did get the buggy developed but there were always issues with it in a remote community of keeping it going but she really appreciated those efforts, and it gave her a lot more independence for the time that she had the buggy before she passed away.”

While working as a physiotherapist in remote communities came with its challenges, Rob says he loved the country, the people and especially the freedom that came with the role.

Professionally, Rob developed a cross-cultural and multidisciplinary approach to his practice.

The experience also sparked Rob’s interest in the philosophy and practice of primary health care.

Rob, who went on to complete a Graduate Diploma in Aboriginal Studies and a Masters in Primary Health Care, left physiotherapy to work in management and public health roles in Aboriginal health in the Territory.

He worked for the Tiwi Health Board and then with the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance of the Northern Territory (AMSANT).

Over the years, Rob has been a board member of the Australian Physiotherapy Association (APA) and the National Rural Health Alliance.

Rob is an inaugural member and current vice president of Services for Australian Rural and Remote Allied Health (SARRAH).

While Rob is semi-retired, lives on the mid-north coast of New South Wales and no longer practises physiotherapy, he remains passionate about models of rural allied health practice, multi-disciplinary primary health care, and health workforce issues.

Working remote as a physiotherapist was not only incredibly enriching - the experience has shaped Rob’s entire career.

“I worked in amazing parts of Australia, was stimulated by that and was working in a different culture with different sets of rules and different ways people live their lives and I found that incredibly stimulating but challenging also,” he says.

Rob advises students to take up opportunities to experience remote placements, and says physiotherapists who are prepared to go bush won’t look back.

“I think if you do plan it, it can be a really exciting part of your life,” he says.

“If you go into it with your eyes wide open, prepare and make sure you don’t get isolated professionally, then I think it’s a great experience for people and would really encourage it.”

Rob’s tips for physiotherapists working remote:

1. Maintain your professional skills. Rob advises physiotherapists to plan their professional development. “Don’t just roll along and let it happen,” he says. “In remote areas you might get away a bit from your specific clinical practice and you get into other roles, you develop services, you advocate for services, you do a lot of multidisciplinary work, but you might actually back off your specific work like spinal work or musculoskeletal work. Keep your professional development skills up.”

2. Make connections. Physiotherapists may be working remotely but can connect with other professionals in different physiotherapy fields. “Keep your connections with them so that you can update your knowledge and check your knowledge,” Rob says. “Otherwise you can get professionally a bit isolated or lose touch a bit. It’s a really full working life but it’s not so clinically focused as say urban practice is. You need to be wary of that.”

3. Educate and advocate. Rob suggests physiotherapists learn to effectively educate others about their work, especially when it comes to the importance of physical independence and mobility. “Part of working in the bush is that you play more of an educative role, both with other staff and with your patients,” he says. “You also need to be prepared to advocate for services, which means to be able to make a case to improve your service or to improve other services on behalf of clients, because sometimes services are pretty limited.”

4. Celebrate the bush. Rob says physiotherapists should embrace the rural and remote lifestyle, and all it has to offer. “If you like the bush, there are so many things out there, not just to do with your profession, that are worth learning about and getting into.”


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Karen Keast

Karen Keast is a freelance health journalist who writes news and feature articles for HealthTimes.

Karen regularly writes for some of Australia’s leading health news websites and magazines.  In a media career spanning 20 years, Karen has worked as a senior journalist in newspapers and television. She has covered the grind of daily news and worked as a politics reporter at countless state and federal elections.

Since venturing into freelance writing five years ago, Karen has found her niche in writing about the health sector for editors, businesses and corporations.

Karen has interviewed the heads of peak health organisations in Australia and overseas, and written hundreds of news and feature articles covering the dedicated work of health professionals who tread the corridors of hospitals and health services, universities, aged care facilities and practices, day in and day out.

Follow Karen Keast on Twitter @stylemywords