Introducing Associate Professor Gabrielle O’Kane

Associate Professor Gabrielle O’Kane is the CEO of the National Rural Health Alliance and has been a rural dietitian for more than 35 years, working in community health centres, private practice and academia. She also serves on our Rural and Remote Health Advisory Council, bringing her extensive experience in the public and private health sectors.

Gabrielle O'Kane and Ted

Gabrielle, tell us why you have committed to supporting the Australian Stroke Alliance?

The vision of the National Rural Health Alliance (NRHA) is for healthy and sustainable rural, regional and remote communities, and one of the key strategic priorities is to bolster funding opportunities for rural health research. So, it was not a difficult decision for the NRHA to provide support for the innovative grant proposal presented by the Australian Stroke Alliance to the Medical Research Futures Fund, which has the potential to save many lives in rural and remote Australia. The Rural and Remote Health Advisory Council, of which the NRHA is a part, is a very practical, efficient council that is committed to advising on the development of education and training materials that are fit- for-purpose in rural and remote contexts. Ultimately, these resources seek to maximise the benefits that emerge from the ‘golden hour’ innovations and form a major part of the implementation plan.

Tell us about the National Rural Health Alliance and the role it plays in Australian life.

The NRHA is comprised of 44 national organisations representing health consumers, health care professionals, service providers, health educators, students and the Indigenous health sector. Our membership is very diverse and includes organisations, such as the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine, The Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwives, Allied Health Professions Australia and the Australian Dental Association, but also the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation and Australian General Practice Accreditation Limited, Royal Far West, the Royal Flying Doctors Service and grassroots organisations such as Country Women’s Association and Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association.

The diversity of the NRHA’s membership could be perceived as a weakness, if the priorities of some groups dominate over others, but we consider it a major strength through our commitment to collaborative partnerships with each other and other stakeholders. As such, one of our strategic priorities is to harness the collective intelligence of members, consumers and other stakeholders to build healthy, sustainable and adaptable communities.

On a very practical level the NRHA collects and shares information, determines key issues that affect health and wellbeing in rural and remote areas, and advocates for better access to high quality, affordable healthcare, and champions models of care that are adaptable for different rural communities. The organisation also provides advice and evidence to governments, educational and research institutions, and other professional bodies.

The Alliance wants to improve stroke care across the nation with wide-ranging initiatives involving a time-critical brain scan at the site of a patient’s stroke, digital telemedicine and a comprehensive education program. What’s the secret to achieving lasting change in rural and remote communities?

Rather than keeping it a secret, the NRHA does its best to stridently advocate for equity of access to high quality healthcare for rural and remote communities, which the Australian Government acknowledges, remains a major impediment to our health system being considered one of the best in the world.

To achieve healthcare reform that provides sustainable, integrated and flexible healthcare services, there needs to be a strong commitment by governments to invest in the recruitment and retention of a highly skilled rural health workforce.

To encourage health professionals to go to the bush, they need to know that there is a career path there for them, that there will be good opportunities for professional development and that their partners and children will be well catered for with suitable jobs and educational opportunities. Rural communities with access to high quality healthcare, good schools, employment opportunities and social and cultural activities brings vitality and regional growth. That is the secret to achieving lasting change for rural and remote communities.

Tell us when you’ve seen a paradigm shift in protocol in a health setting and the benefits that followed. Any tips in there for us?

Over the last six months during the COVID-19 pandemic, we have experienced a major paradigm shift in the way that state and territory governments have worked so cooperatively with the Australian Government. At the NRHA we hope that the gains made through the deliberations of the national Cabinet can be sustained, so that we can witness the benefits that can flow from pooling funds from state-based health services with those provided by the Australian Government. The NRHA envisages a far more sustainable, integrated and adaptable rural health system if the close working relationship across all levels of government can remain. It will still require further steps to actually allow rural communities to decide how best to pool and distribute the resources that are available through both levels of government.

There is no doubt that the shift to telehealth will have ongoing benefits for those living rurally, provided we ensure that rural communities have the choice to see their health care professionals face-to-face or via telehealth.

Let’s jump to 2050 when the Alliance’s program has delivered, as promised. What are the three most important achievements you have witnessed after 30 years of innovation?

Firstly, an important achievement over the last 30 years is that morbidity and mortality rates from stroke are the same for rural people as their metropolitan counterparts. Secondly, that the health professionals working rurally are as skilled and confident as those living and working in tertiary hospitals. Lastly, that regional and rural towns are thriving owing to a strong investment in health prevention, fully integrated data management systems that link multi-disciplinary primary care with acute care services, and a predominance of state-of-the-art research centres.

Where will you be in 2050 when young health carers are out there, toiling away in the bush?

I am going to be saying to my husband Ted, pictured above, that it is time to move off our small farm and into Canberra, so I do not have to dodge the kangaroos on my way home from my day of playing Bridge.


Interested to read more?

Find out about the Alliance’s links with rural and regional Australians.

Find out more about the Alliance’s telestroke initiative.

Meet Peta Rutherford, the CEO of the Rural Doctors’ Association of Australia.