Making community collaborations a win win


Dr Margaret Swenson, Moranbah, QLD

Dr Margaret Swenson believes that community engagement is key to staff retention and the growing patient base that she serves. It has also led to improved health outcomes for her rural community. This case study shares some ideas to help inform the way you collaborate with your community.

Margaret says: ‘I’ve designed a multi-prong approach using social and traditional media, word of mouth, community events and the education of patients to be responsible for their own health. We use this approach to ‘sell health’ to our patients. It’s important to have a business plan in place if you don’t already. Remember that engagement doesn’t have to be expensive and most of it can be done affordably.

First, get to know your community’s demographics, not just those of your patient base. We have 10,000 people in Moranbah, plus 6,000 mining workers and an additional 4,000 who travel in from farms and rural areas out of town. We learnt early on that health literacy was low. The community had a high economic and low socio-educational status. There were a lot of smokers and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) was prevalent. Some had black lung.

Using this information we tailored health education to this audience with simple, clear messaging. So, they were already engaged and ready to listen to our messages during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We have a regular presence at community events and talk directly to patients that have lived in Moranbah for a long period of time to keep up-to-date on what is happening in the community and identify the key health issues.

I directly address these issues on our practice Facebook page and deliver bite size community education videos from a known and trusted voice. We also create pamphlets, use community noticeboards and rotate health presentations on our practice television which can be seen from the town square to keep reiterating the message and bring it right through to the practice. I go out and give talks in the community – from local radio to direct to the mining community relevant issues like prostate cancer, legionella, black lung etc.

In return, it was our local mines that offered us PPE when we had a shortage at the start of the pandemic and bought us a generator when our electricity went out during a severe weather event. Building relationships is essential.

We have a local group of health professionals including the two pharmacies, the hospital, other GP practices and allied health that meets on a regular basis. This helps us to prepare for challenges such as COVID-19, bushfires or Cyclone Debby.

If you are passionate about lifting the overall health literacy of those around you and giving back to the community you can earn their respect and they will keep coming back. Genuine engagement and ‘walking the walk’ are key to building a general practice business that can see you through a range of rural and remote challenges.’

Dr Margaret Swenson’s top tips

  1. Know your community’s demographics, not just those of your patient base. If you get to know your community, you will better understand their needs and how best to meet them.
  2. Take a multi-prong approach to engagement. Use social and traditional media, word of mouth, local events and community education.
  3. Connect with local council and key community stakeholders to build relationships. By building relationships you can work together more effectively to improve health outcomes.
  4. Be seen at local events close to your community’s heart or sponsor a local cause you care about.
  5. Create a point of different to demonstrate to the community that you are giving back. For example, we run a volunteer teddy bear hospital and picnic every year for local families and a ‘Halloween Safe Zone’ linked to kids anxiety/phobias etc. Both events combine the opportunity to have fun with important health messages.