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Arnhem Land to benefit from new allied health centre

Emma Breheny
6 October 2016


Sarah Fincham-Thomson’s story of working in a remote area couldn’t be more different to the usual media reports of hardship or despair. Born and raised in Arnhem Land, she decided to return from Queensland five years ago after speaking to the owner of the local medical centre, who described the huge impact an absence of physiotherapy services was having on the community.

‘They were having to fly people to Darwin and interstate on the Patient Assisted Travel Scheme. People were just unable to rehabilitate in Gove,’ Sarah recalls.

That was enough to motivate her to come back and invest in her community, which she describes as more than ‘just another really rich mining town’, a perception that had developed over many years of Rio Tinto aluminium production. Upon returning, she opened a practice servicing private clients and negotiated with the Gove District Hospital to provide inpatient services as a private contractor. The lack of any physiotherapy service at the hospital over a period of years meant long-term rehabilitation was almost non-existent.

‘People came in sick and left a little bit better, but they came back sick again, because they weren’t sent away with a therapy plan or any sort of management in terms of rehabilitation,’ Sarah says.
An appreciative community embraced the new physiotherapy practice, Arnhem Physiotherapy Services, and Sarah saw rapid growth of her business.

‘Now it’s been a matter of listening to that same story: we don’t have a speech therapist, we don’t have a podiatrist, we haven’t had a psychologist.’

Closure of the Rio Tinto refinery in 2014 halved the town’s population almost overnight; however, Sarah has seen the transformation as an opportunity.

Later this year, she’ll be opening the Arnhem Allied Health Centre, a multidisciplinary practice with eight fully serviced rooms. Administration and marketing will be provided to all practitioners.

With the usual risks of opening a business amplified in a remote location, Sarah is trying to build the confidence of healthcare practitioners so they’ll invest in the community and improve the health of its residents, many of whom suffer from diabetes, heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

While this will go a long way to improving service gaps, Sarah remains ambivalent about the future of allied healthcare for this pocket of the Northern Territory.

‘I believe the problem is allocation of funding. We certainly don’t have any lack of doctors, but part of the problem is a lack of advocacy for allied health services in Arnhem Land.’

However, she’s hopeful that the NDIS, rolling out in the area in January 2017, has the potential to place private services like hers within reach of significant numbers of the population.

‘That’s what’s going to close the gap: genuine therapy.’

 

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