Local Charm and National Support: Launching My Career in Rural Queensland

Brooke Tunks (third from the right) graduating with her future colleagues It was the end of my final semester, having completed my final viva exam when the examiner asked me what my plans were for 2019. The examiner was also a university lecturer who I admired over the duration of my degree, so when the response to my exciting report of working in rural Queensland was “You’ll do well. You will make sure you get the support you need” I was mortified. Had I been an obnoxious student? Did she think I needed lots of support?

Image: Brooke Tunks (third from the right) graduating with her future colleagues

Ten months into my career as an occupational therapist in rural Queensland, I now understand. As a new graduate, what has been essential to my ability to provide quality services to this community is a commitment to assertively seeking out the support I need.

My workplace is a little house with a big yard, working alongside a speech pathologist and an admin. We are part of a larger organisation with frequent contact via teleconference, but I am the sole occupational therapist for our Chinchilla clinic. In fact, I am one of only a handful of occupational therapists in the town of approximately 6,000 people. Most occupational therapists are based at the local hospital and the one other works down the road in her private practice.

Every morning, I travel for two minutes to work. No traffic and no traffic lights make the daily commute a dream and the sound of nature means I rarely start my day feeling anything but relaxed. I set up for the day and soon my first client arrives. The family of four children, all barefoot, roll into the waiting room and each child gives me an update. The siblings settle on the couch or begin their colouring and I start my first therapy session of the day. It’s mornings like these that I am thankful for the relaxed nature of rural work and how I can be family-centred in what I do.

As a rural generalist, my caseload is varied and challenging. My speech pathologist colleague often laughs as she watches me go from playing soccer in the yard, making spaghetti bolognese in the kitchen to prescribing grab rails. On my lunch break, I return my book club book to the library and I also pop my head into the NDIS local area coordinator for a quick chat.

I love my job as an occupational therapist, and despite the charms of rural life it has its challenges and I attribute my ability to provide quality services to the support I have received. I hope that my experience will encourage occupational therapists that going rural doesn’t mean that you are professionally isolated, and say a big thank you to our profession for supporting new graduates so well. Here are the ways I have been able to get the support I have needed:

  1. Regular supervision sessions: I receive weekly supervision sessions via teleconference with a senior OT based in Brisbane. Being the sole OT in my practice, I don’t have the luxury of being able to have a quick chat to ask another OT a quick question. To make the most of my supervision time I keep track of quick questions in a notebook ready for supervision. My experience has taught me that supervision is invaluable and worth advocating for and has helped me feel competent and confident, and to enhance outcomes for clients.
  2. Peer and group supervision: Most new graduates often experience feelings of doubt, but those who are isolated have fewer opportunities to see what other OTs are doing. Peer supervision helps me to calibrate my clinical decision making. It’s helpful sometimes to bring a ‘help me case’ to the group and the group feeding back that that case sounds hard and I am doing the best practice for that issue.  I love the opportunity to be part of a team of occupational therapists and having the opportunity to contribute my learnings.
  3. Being a mentee:  When I had been in my role for 3 months, I signed up for the Occupational Therapy Australia MentorLink program and have been lucky to be matched with a wonderful mentor. My mentor and I speak once a month on the phone and our discussions tend to revolve around general OT theory, best practice, personal improvement at work, career and professional development advice and managing the challenges of living and working rurally. Each session of mentoring I leave feeling encouraged and am provided with new research or resources to take away.  I am so grateful for the time she invests in me.
  4. Special interest groups: I recently joined the ‘Paediatric OT Special Interest Group (Brisbane & beyond)’ via teleconference which I really enjoyed engaging with another new group of occupational therapists. Online Facebook groups have also been great for feeling a part of my wider professional community.  My favourite is the ‘Australian Paediatric Occupational Therapists’ group which has over 2,600 members where I get exposed to upcoming professional development opportunities, discussion of issues amongst the wider profession and case discussions.
  5. Multi-disciplinary learning:  Getting to work so closely with a speech pathologist has enriched my practice ten-fold. I have loved learning more and thinking more about how I communicate with my clients. As we have many shared clients, it’s great to share each profession’s perspective and strategies to improve the outcomes for our clients.
  6. Work shadowing:  I have found that sometimes it helps just being able to watch someone do something you haven’t done before, which sometimes is tricky being rural. My employer arranged for me to visit an experienced occupational therapist to increase my equipment prescription skills which supported me in improving my own services.
  7. Professional development: One big perk of going rural is access to scholarships, bursaries and organisations designed to support rural clinicians. I have accessed ‘Health Workforce Queensland’ which has supported me to access professional development to upskill in areas which the community needs. I have also been supported by my region’s Primary Health Network (PHN) to connect with other local clinicians.
  8. Connecting with other new graduates: I have been fortunate to have been connected with the other new graduate occupational therapist in town who works at the hospital. It has been so encouraging be able to share skills and experiences. We cross paths during work about shared patients and we also get to just be friends who are sharing a lot of experiences. A group of colleagues I graduated university with have also provided support, helping me understand the diversity of the occupational therapy role.
  9. Counselling: For a professional who considers the person, the environment and their occupation on a daily basis at work, it took me an embarrassingly long time to notice that my new role of being a rural clinician would impact my mental health. I have benefited from accessing a counselling service via telehealth to work though the loneliness of moving away from friends and family, the stress of being a new graduate and managing my wellbeing where the environment doesn’t necessarily support my engagement in my usual self-care techniques—there are no beaches or speciality coffee shops in Chinchilla!

It has been really encouraging for me to see how more experienced occupational therapists have been so willing to help their junior peers. Thank you to all my fellow professionals who have provided the support I needed and thank you to all the other occupational therapists across the country who I know are doing the same thing for other new graduates.

By Brooke Tunks, New Graduate Occupational Therapist

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