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Warracknabeal has a new doctor.

Retired pharmacist John Aitken is now officially titled Dr Aitken after graduating with a PhD at La Trobe University Rural Health School in Bendigo last week.

Dr Aitken’s PhD centred on a research partnership between Rural Northwest Health and Latrobe University and was initiated by former CEO Catherine Morley and former head of the rural health school, Professor Jane Farmer. Over 300 Yarriambiack Shire residents took part in the study through community action research groups, individual interviews, or through consultation with local community organisations.

Dr Aitken said he had great support from both the Yarriambiack community and Rural Northwest Health management to help him complete his studies.

His four-year project had a strong emphasis on improving health knowledge, building individual capacity and improving the therapeutic landscape of Yarriambiack Shire. It started with a Community Action Research Group which invited the community to attend meetings to uncover the shire’s health needs for the next 20 years.

From an early meeting, aged care expos were launched in Hopetoun and Warracknabeal to address the challenges of ageing in our communities. More than 200 people attended lectures and discussions about healthy ageing and strategies for living at home for longer.

The expos paved the way for the ‘Seasons of Wellness’ programs, working with Yarriambiack Shire and Warracknabeal Neighbourhood House. These programs aimed to address contemporary health issues, giving community members skills to deal with personal and family health problems, mental health issues and the burden of chronic disease that affects older community members.

The development of the well-being coordinator program at RNH can be linked to some of the recommendations of this project. That includes the use of this research by the RNH board to frame strategic priorities that specifically addressed chronic disease.

A novel research method known as Photovoice was also used to identify the health issues facing young people in our community. Satellite VCAL students took photos of places that affected their health and well-being and discussed these issues as part of the research study to improve adolescent health and well-being.

Dr Aitken said Warracknabeal Secondary College teacher Casey Phelan did a terrific job to ensure that project was a great success.

“The students should also be congratulated for their willingness to share their knowledge about youth health issues,” Dr Aitken said.

To improve the therapeutic landscape of the community, three community gardens were established in Warracknabeal, Beulah and Hopetoun. The aim of these gardens was to promote the eating of fresh food, healthy exercise, intergenerational participation in healthy activities, and socialisation to address those health issues associated with loneliness and marginalisation.

A new therapeutic garden is also being developed at RNH’s Warracknabeal campus as a shared community space that can be used by community members and RNH allied health staff for community health programs.

Dr Aitken thanked community members who participated in his research project, attending meetings and interviews, working to establish the community gardens, sharing stories and knowledge about their own, their family’s and community’s health issues.

“I could not have achieved this result without the support of community members, the RNH board and team members, my friends and family,” he said.

“I would also particularly like to thank my supervisors Prof Mandy Kenny and Dr Virginia Dickson-Swift who provided me with invaluable advice and support.

“There are now other PhD students doing research at RNH and I encourage community members to support their efforts to improve rural health outcomes, particularly for those of us who live in Yarriambiack Shire.”


* The results of his research have been published in Dr Aitken’s PhD thesis entitled “Sharing knowledge: community participation strategies for improving rural health.”. Dr Aitken has presented this research at over 20 conferences and forums.

These presentations included a workshop, with Dr Kaye Knight, Catherine Morley, Leo Casey and Wendy Walters, at the US leading age conference in Nashville; and health research conferences in Melbourne, Hobart, and Glasgow. In June 2018, the results of this study and proposals for future health strategies and interventions will be presented by Dr Aitken at the First International Social Prescribing Conference in Manchester.

Dr Aitken said he hoped that this was an exciting beginning for a new model of care, in social prescribing, to address the burden of chronic disease and that the presentation will provide a further opportunity to highlight the leading role of Rural Northwest Health and La Trobe Rural Health School in improving health outcomes for rural Australians.


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