Government names new National Rural Health Commissioner

Anastasia Tsirtsakis

3/07/2020 2:01:48 PM

The RACGP has welcomed the appointment of doctor and academic Associate Professor Ruth Stewart.

Ruth Stewart
Newly-appointed Rural Health Commissioner Associate Professor Ruth Stewart has ‘lived and breathed’ rural and health for decades. (Image: Supplied)

‘The RACGP looks forward to working with Associate Professor Ruth Stewart to produce better health outcomes for rural and remote patients through the RACGP training program and provide the highest level of support for our colleagues working in these communities.
‘There is plenty of work to be done and not a moment to waste.’
That is RACGP Vice-President and Chair of RACGP Rural Associate Professor Ayman Shenouda, who has welcomed the new appointment.
Associate Professor Stewart brings extensive experience in rural and remote health to the role, as both a practitioner and academic.
She worked as a procedural GP in rural Victoria for more than 20 years before a 2012 move to Thursday Island, off the coast of Far North Queensland, where she provided obstetric services and worked as a senior medical officer.
Associate Professor Stewart has served as President and Board member of the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine (ACRRM), Chair of the Federation of Rural Australian Medical Educators, and has sat on numerous other medical boards.
She was most recently Associate Professor of Rural Medicine and Director of Rural Clinical Training at James Cook University.
The new Commissioner called the appointment a great privilege, and said she is looking forward to working with rural and remote communities to improve health outcomes.
‘I look forward to supporting Minister [Greg] Hunt and Minister [Mark] Coulton to set priorities and develop strategies to best serve rural and remote Australia,’ Associate Professor Stewart said.
‘I will work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across the nation to ensure that these policies are culturally safe and directed at closing the gap.
‘This is an exciting challenge for my office to develop and promote innovative and integrated approaches to healthcare delivery in rural and remote areas.’
The announcement follows the Federal Government’s decision to extend and expand the Office of the National Rural Health Commissioner to have a broader focus.
The role will be supported by two deputy commissioners, who will provide expertise across a range of rural health disciplines, such as nursing, allied health, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said the role will be an essential component to improving rural health outcomes.
‘Associate Professor Stewart’s wealth of experience and expertise will be invaluable in driving the Australian Government’s commitment to improving rural health outcomes around the nation,’ he said.
One of the early priorities for the expanded Office will be to support the Government’s ongoing rural response to COVID-19, and to examine the impact on health workforce planning in regional, rural and remote communities.
Associate Professor Shenouda said the RACGP will seek to ensure recommendations featured in the National Rural Generalist Pathway advice paper are implemented by the Government ‘right away’.
‘It is important that patients and healthcare workers outside of our major cities have a strong voice,’ he said. ‘We need an independent advocate who can progress practical changes in line with the needs of rural and remote communities.
‘The new Office will be encouraged to undertake targeted projects to improve rural health access and sustainable models of care, and I think that is particularly important.
‘We need to look ahead and be proactive on opportunities such as better utilising technology, including telehealth services, and encouraging more junior GPs to train in rural and remote areas.’
The new Commissioner is assuming the role at a rather auspicious time, given the immense pressures on the health sector during the COVID-19 health crisis.
While Associate Professor Shenouda is aware of the challenges facing healthcare outside of major cities, there are countless positives to practicing medicine in rural and remote Australia.
‘I work in a rural town and love the work I do in this tightknit community,’ he said.
‘I’m sure that Associate Professor Stewart’s message to medical students would be very similar to mine – if you are considering a job as a GP in a rural or remote area, you certainly will not regret it,’ he said.
‘You will be welcomed with open arms by the local medical community and your skill set will progress rapidly. More than that, you will get to know your patients and see the benefit of your hard work and expertise every day.’
Associate Professor Stewart succeeds inaugural Rural Health Commissioner, Emeritus Professor Paul Worley, who was appointed in the role in November 2017.
Associate Professor Shenouda commended the outgoing Commissioner for his significant contribution.
‘His willingness to engage with all members of the rural and remote workforce and work on projects including the National Rural Generalist Pathway means that he leaves behind a strong legacy,’ he said.
‘I look forward to the RACGP, Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine and the Rural Doctors Association of Australia working closely with the new Commissioner to improve health outcomes in the bush.’
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