Issues affecting therapist workforce and service delivery in the disability sector in rural and remote New South Wales, Australia: perspectives of policymakers, managers and senior therapists13 June 2013
Introduction: The disability sector encompasses a broad range of conditions and needs, including children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, people with acquired disabilities, and irreversible physical injuries. Allied health professionals (therapists), in the disability sector, work within government and funded or charitable non-government agencies, schools, communities, and private practice. This article reports the findings of a qualitative study of therapist workforce and service delivery in the disability sector in rural and remote New South Wales (NSW), Australia. The aim was to investigate issues of importance to policy-makers, managers and therapists providing services to people with disabilities in rural and remote areas. Methods: The project gathered information via semi-structured interviews with individuals and small groups. Head office and regional office policy-makers, along with managers and senior therapists in western NSW were invited to participate. Participants included 12 policy-makers, 28 managers and 10 senior therapists from NSW government agencies and non-government organisations (NGOs) involved in providing services and support to people with disabilities in the region. Information was synthesised prior to using constant comparative analysis within and across data sets to identify issues.Results: Five broad themes resonated across participants’ roles, locations and service settings: (1) challenges to implementing policy in rural and remote NSW; (2) the impact of geographic distribution of workforce and clients; (3) workforce issues - recruitment, support, workloads, retention; (4) equity and access issues for rural clients; and (5) the important role of the NGO sector in rural service delivery and support. Conclusions: Although commitment to providing best practice services was universal, policy-related information transfer between organisations and employees was inconsistent. Participants raised some workforce and service delivery issues that are similar to those reported in the rural health literature but rarely in the context of allied health and disability services. Relatively recent innovations such as therapy assistants, information technology, and trans-disciplinary approaches, were raised as important service delivery considerations within the region. These and other innovations were expected to extend the coverage provided by therapists. Nongovernment organisations played a significant role in service delivery and support in the region. Participants recognised the need for therapists working for different organisations, in rural areas, to collaborate both in terms of peer support and service delivery to clients.