Photo credited to Chanel Dunn
Did you get into healthcare to make an impact? Do you feel a little stuck in a ‘rut’? Looking for new opportunities? Or just wanting a fresh perspective?
Jessica is a speech pathologist with over 20 years of experience working with children. She herself has three children, including a pair of twins. She lives with her family in the outskirts of Sydney.
When we visited Jessica, we found ourselves in a typical suburban home, with a huge backyard that backed out onto bush. There was a beehive, and a lot of arts and craft materials around. Jessica is not only highly knowledgeable, she’s also highly passionate – especially about culturally appropriate practice, particularly for Indigenous populations.
She also happens to have a disability herself, which prevents her from being able to drive or stand for long periods of time. She is most comfortable when she is able to lie down.
Jessica has so much to offer, and yet, her physical disability can limit her ability to work in traditional speech pathology settings. Her current employer knows this, but wasn’t able to drastically modify her working conditions.
For me, meeting Jessica was a lightbulb moment in our journey of starting Umbo. We had started Umbo to benefit children in rural and remote Australia. We knew there were many children who couldn’t access speech and occupational therapy. But I’d just had a huge realisation. We had a huge opportunity to help allied health professionals, like Jessica, too.
Why are rural Australians missing out?
Australia is the third least densely populated country in the world, behind Mongolia and Namibia. Out of the three, it is easily the wealthiest country and should therefore be the world leader in online therapy – connecting people in rural communities to clinicians often in cities. Sadly, this is not the case.
After living and working in Cambodia for 5 years, where I established OIC Cambodia, a charity to establish speech pathology as a profession, I moved back to Australia, my country of birth. I was amazed to learn about the lack of healthcare rural Australians were facing.
Griffith, NSW, is a town of 30,000 people. Of this population, a conservative estimate of those needing speech and occupational therapy is 1,200. And yet, anecdotally, the town has only 2 speech pathologists, and not one single occupational therapist who are NDIS registered. This snapshot of Griffith illustrates an urgent issue in rural Australia – access to allied health professionals for rural Australians is dire.
Elsewhere, clinicians were flying in and out of rural communities. Travel costs, often not entirely covered under NDIS, meant that clinicians had to prioritise clients who were closer to satellite cities. Children were missing out on vital therapy, simply because of where they lived.
It seemed like in rural Australia, the conditions, and the solutions to the problem, were on par with Cambodia, the 146th most developed country in the world. I wanted to understand why this was the case and make an impact. I wanted to know who else was doing anything about it.
Where do we start to make a healthcare impact?
A chance meeting connected me to Ed Johnson, a speech pathologist whose PhD was uncovering interesting findings around person-centred care in rural communities – including doing therapy online. Soon after, via the Centre for Social Impact, I met Francesca Pinzone, a former nurse with a strong non-profit and social impact background, who also happened to have a child who has received speech pathology.
Together, the three of us sat down to discuss what we could do about the situation, how to make an impact and where to start.
We realised that in cities, there were plenty of clinicians like Jessica, who couldn’t find the right types of jobs. These jobs demanded that they work in a clinic, doing specific hours and lacked the flexibility that they often needed. Through setting up an online practice, we could help them to do a few hours here and there, from their own living room.
If we had the process and technology set up correctly, we could even have Jessica working in her most comfortable position – lying down – with a screen above her head. Meeting Jessica was both a pivotal and emotional moment – I could clearly see the opportunities we had to make an impact for clinicians. But what about the technology, surely we had to get straight to developing that?
Learning to walk
We quickly realised that technology was an adjunct to a solution, not the solution itself. At the same time, technology carried with it an inherent risk – that we could create a digital divide between urban and rural Australians, particularly given poor connectivity in rural Australia.
Furthermore, if we started developing technology immediately – what exactly would we be developing? Ed had plenty of experience with online therapy, but he is just one person, with one person’s perspective.
We decided to set up Umbo, a social enterprise that connects children in rural and remote Australia to speech and occupational therapists, often in cities. We would recruit, accredit and train these clinicians in delivering therapy online. We’d make sure that we were working with people who believed in the social benefit of what we were doing.
Through this process, we’d not only generate traction and revenue, but we’d also learn about what online therapy looks like. We’d learn from our families as to what features they thought were useful or not.
Having worked in Cambodia, I tried to apply the same perspective to this situation. Despite living in Cambodia for five years, and speaking the language, I fundamentally don’t understand the Cambodian culture or political situation. With this issue, it started with the same recognition – I don’t understand rural access to health.
Starting to canter
One year into the Umbo journey and our learnings are vast.
We’re seeing the problems both families and providers are experiencing with NDIS. We’re learning about what drives our supporters, to join us in addressing this social issue. And we’re learning the extent to which we need to rethink traditional models of allied health.
We’re still very early on in our journey, and our ambitions are huge. We’re facing challenges day to day. Like many others out there starting social enterprises, we face financial, emotional and mental struggles daily. But at no point have I questioned that we’re on the right track.
Charles de Montesquieu said: “A truly virtuous (wo)man would come to the aid of the most distant stranger as quickly as to his own friend. If (wo)men were perfectly virtuous, they wouldn’t have friends”.
We know that there are distant strangers out there, struggling to cope, simply because of where they live. That is enough to drive us to keep on going.
We would love you to be part of that journey. We challenge you to think differently, to consider how you may make a healthcare impact…
How you can help
At Umbo, we’re looking for referrals to clients – specifically children who need speech and occupational therapy, who are struggling to receive therapy through traditional methods. If you’ve got a wait list 40 deep – we want to talk to you. Concurrently, we’re looking for clinicians who believe in the social value of what we’re doing to come and work with us in addressing this urgent social issue.
Please visit umbo.com.au or email [email protected] to find out more.