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As one of the Council’s longest-standing Accreditation Panel Assessors, Heather Malcolm brings a wealth of knowledge, experience and a growth mindset as she makes her contribution to the Council’s work of accrediting university physiotherapy programs.

We recently chatted with Heather to hear more of her story, how she has benefited from her time as an Accreditation Assessor and the various roles she currently fills.

Heather lived in Broken Hill as a child and desired to become a physiotherapist. After moving to Adelaide to study physiotherapy, she spent several years working in the Royal Adelaide Hospital and in private practice, before moving to the Northern Territory, where she currently lives and works as the Chief Allied Health Officer for the Northern Territory Department of Health.

Heather has grown an impressive resume, including roles in hospitals, private practice, sports medicine, defence and government. Over this time, she has gained significant experience in regulation, accreditation, clinical practice and policy areas across healthcare.

When meeting Heather, what is apparent is her humility and understated description of her professional journey, and the significant work that she is currently doing in the Northern Territory government and policy space to provide quality and equitable health services for Territorians.

In this interview, we only touched the surface of the breadth and depth of her valuable contribution to the Australian physiotherapy profession and the allied health sector more broadly. We hope you find it insightful and inspiring, as we hear about Heather’s passion and commitment.

Thanks Heather for taking the time to chat with us today. You’ve been involved with the Council since 2010 and as an Accreditation Panel Assessor for most of that time. Can you share with us what originally led you to become an Accreditation Panel Assessor with the Council, and why your expertise is a good fit with accreditation work?

Heather: The Council always seek to have a diverse panel of accreditation assessors who can bring both the understanding of the education sector, which academics do, as well as the physiotherapy clinical and practitioner perspectives. When I first became an Accreditation Assessor, I had limited experience in the education space, so initially I wasn’t sure whether I was the right fit for the role.

But when I began, I was a Panel Member with some wonderful Panel Chairs, who provided helpful training, support and leadership to learn about accreditation, and I came to realise how my clinical experience and knowledge could bring value to the accreditation work that the Council’s panels undertake.

As a clinician, I treated my own patients in diverse clinical settings as well as supervised physiotherapy students on their clinical placements, and recruited graduates from various states and universities. I could see variation in their knowledge and differences in competency, and became interested in the content of university physiotherapy programs. These are some of the insights and expertise I’m able to bring to my accreditation role, as we provide quality assurance for entry-level programs that will produce graduates who are safe to practice and ready to join the workforce.

What accreditation work do you undertake as a Panel Assessor?

Heather: All entry level physiotherapy programs in Australia need to be accredited by the Australian Physiotherapy Council. So, the work of the Accreditation Panels is to review the documentation and evidence that education providers submit about their physiotherapy programs, against the Accreditation Standard which defines the criteria which must be met in order to become an Approved Program by Ahpra. The Panel Assessors bring subject matter expertise from both an academic and clinical practice perspective. We work as a team and participate in discussions to reach a consensus.

As part of the Accreditation process, Panels also undertake Site Visits, where we meet with program and teaching staff, university leadership, local employers and placement providers as well as current students and graduates to validate what we’ve read and reviewed in the documents submitted by the university. Previously this has been a face-to-face visit to the campus but during the Covid pandemic, we have successfully adapted to virtual visits.

Our role as a Panel is to provide a recommendation on whether the university program meets the Accreditation Standard which is then submitted for consideration by the Council’s Accreditation Committee and Board of Directors.

From your experience as an Accreditation Panel Assessor, what are some of the most enjoyable and rewarding parts of the role?

Heather: I’ve found it really interesting to learn about how each physiotherapy program at the different universities delivers their programs. In order to gain ‘Approved Program’ status, a university needs to meet the Accreditation Standard. The Standard is outcomes focused and gives university providers quite a lot of flexibility as to how they design and deliver their program. So, we see quite a variety and innovative approaches, all with the goal of developing solid practitioners.

For me, I particularly enjoy the Site Visits, where we go to the university campus, because I can see firsthand what the learning experience is like for the students, and I’m able to interact with the various people involved in the course, from University Vice Chancellors, to Professors, Heads of program, teaching staff, clinical supervisors, industry advisors and the students. As a Panel, we can see how universities are using technology in their teaching, innovating and responding to future workforce needs as they prepare students to join the physiotherapy profession. Hearing about the program from a range of stakeholders allows the Panel to triangulate the evidence presented and prepare a well-considered report against the Standard.

Another positive aspect of working on the Panels, are the other Panel Assessors I’ve met and worked with over the years. Our three-person Panels usually include colleagues from other states and with various professional experiences, which gives a wonderfully diverse perspective when we are undertaking our accreditation work. It also has been valuable to me in my professional journey, where I’m able to reach out to a network of colleagues for their advice and expertise.

Apart from your accreditation work with the Council, you also have a very significant portfolio as Chief Allied Health Officer in the Northern Territory. Could you touch on some of the responsibilities that you carry in that role?

Heather: Since 2012, I’ve worked in the Northern Territory Department of Health, and since 2019 have been the Chief Allied Health Officer. It’s a broad and diverse portfolio that provides leadership to Allied Health professions, such as physiotherapy, occupational therapy, audiology, pharmacy, psychology, speech therapy and more.

The Chief Allied Health Officer role involves providing internal and external strategic advice and guidance to ensure optimal outcomes for NT patients and Allied Health professionals. I promote the value of Allied Health in the delivery of person-centred care in collaboration with other Senior Allied Health leads. This may be working on Territory-wide workforce models or engaging with key organisations such as SARRAH and Indigenous Allied Health Australia.

Whilst there isn’t currently an entry-level program for physiotherapy in the NT, we know that you receive interstate physiotherapy students for clinical placements. Could you share with us some of the benefits these students gain when they come to the NT for their clinical placements?

Heather: Exposure of students to NT on urban and remote clinical placement is a very valuable contributor to attracting them to consider NT as a great place to live and work. We are able to offer quite unique and multi-disciplinary experiences, linking our physiotherapy students up with other Allied Health, Nursing and Medical students on placements. Students also get the opportunity to see and work with cases with complex needs in Aboriginal communities and remote health settings.

This article shares the experiences of a physiotherapy student from James Cook University in Queensland going to Northern Territory.

(For more information, check out RIPPL)

What are some of the unique challenges of the healthcare sector in the Northern Territory, compared with other areas in Australia, such as the larger cities?

Heather: So far physiotherapy degrees have not been offered in the NT, however, Charles Darwin University will be offering a graduate entry Masters program in the near future and I’ve been able to support this as part of the Physiotherapy Course Advisory Group.

For physiotherapists in NT, there are greater costs involved to undertake professional development and attend conferences interstate because of the time and travel requirements. However, the COVID pandemic has had a silver lining, in that there are more online PD offerings and virtual conferences which have allowed greater access for remotely located practitioners. This has been supportive of the longer-term retention of practitioners, especially those who want to do further study or specialise in their field. In order to address the high turnover of staff, we have developed an attraction, recruitment and retention action plan that looks at addressing the workforce challenges in the NT.

The Council is grateful for the professional contributions of all our Accreditation Panel Assessors. These diverse Accreditation Assessors located across Australia, bring a depth of expertise and knowledge gained in various roles across healthcare and education.

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