From dietitian to research director, scholarship recipient Dr Laura Alston is forging the ways we address health and wellbeing in rural and regional Australia.
The health and nutrition disparity between rural and metropolitan Australia is one many of us are aware of, but there is surprisingly little research on why it exists – or what can be done to improve the health and diet of rural and regional Australians.
Enter Dr Laura Alston, a dietitian and now research director who is passionate about improving the health of her fellow rural dwellers.
“I’d been working as a dietitian in Melbourne but then fell in love with a farmer,” laughs Laura. “So I moved to Colac and started working at the rural hospital there. I quickly realised how different health was, outside the city, and the data also reflects this.”
As Laura worked on chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease with her patients, she was keen to tailor individual advice to meet her clients’ needs and circumstances but found there just wasn’t enough research. So, she decided to take on a PhD.
“My thesis focussed on the difference between rural and regional and metropolitan areas in terms of health, the nutrition issues between the two and the preventable elements of cardiovascular disease (CVD).”
Geographic health disparities in Victoria
Laura identified some major health gaps and geographic disparities in her research and focussed on the 30% higher death rate due to heart disease in rural compared to metropolitan areas.
She then investigated the causes of the greater CVD death rates in rural areas, including lifestyle factors such as smoking and alcohol consumption, less access to fresh produce, less health promotion, and socioeconomic factors such as education and employment levels.
“I thought my research would be useful for dietitians, but it’s actually been picked up and used by a lot of different health organisations, like The Flying Doctors Service, the Australian Heart Foundation and the World Heart Federation.”
After her PhD, Laura applied for and was awarded a grant – to investigate how to better identify malnutrition in patients – at Colac Area Health, where she had previously worked as a practitioner.
“It was the first time the health service had been awarded a research grant and enabled us to employ other allied health staff to work on the study with me. It was really fantastic,” says Laura.
“Following this study’s success, the leadership of the health service decided to build a research unit so from there we’ve got more funding and more staff. Traditionally, large metro hospitals have huge research units but smaller rural health services don’t have any, which translated to less research evidence in the rural context, so we’re really working to bridge that gap.”
Taking rural health on Board
Alongside her role as Director of research and the National Heart Foundation fellowship, it was a natural step in Laura’s passionate advocacy to move into governance. In 2019, she applied for and was accepted to sit on the Board of Women’s Health and Wellbeing Barwon South West, a not-for-profit health promotion organisation focussed on improving women’s health in the rural and regional Barwon South West of Victoria.
Now Chair, Laura is deeply proud of the women’s health and gender rights advocacy work the not for profit undertakes. “They have great campaigns around sexual and reproductive health, domestic violence prevention and gender equity advocacy. They seek to improve women’s health issues in regional Victoria now and for the future.
“I also love that the organisation is focussed on prevention. So with an issue like domestic violence – which impacts women’s health in many ways – they’re looking at how we can prevent the violence happening; what do we need to do in society, what education and advocacy do we need to ensure a better future for women.”
Advancing gender equality with a scholarship
It was through her work on the Board that Laura heard that the Australian Scholarships Foundation was offering scholarships to fully fund MBAs for women working in the not-for-profit sector.
Laura says that as a mum of three young children, living on a farm and having spent four years as a PhD student, she wouldn’t have been able to undertake an MBA without financial support.
Now, a third of the way through a Kaplan Business School MBA – studying at night while her husband shares the domestic load – Laura waxes lyrical about all she has learnt so far, and how much she has already applied her learnings to her work on the board and as research director at Colac Area Health.
“The MBA has given me sound theory around governance, so it’s helped me to write and better understand governance policies, for example. We’ve also done subjects on finance, which has helped me greatly both on the Board and in my Director role. These skills are very different to the skills I have as a researcher,” she explains.
“Receiving the scholarship has been a dream come true and I know I will be able to use the skills for the rest of my working life; to continue contributing to not-for-profit Boards as an enthusiastic, passionate rural woman and hopefully inspiring others to take on leadership roles too.”
The scholarship may have been a dream come true for Laura but, clearly, it’s a gift for regional Australia, too.
Dr Laura Alston is Chair of the Womens Health & Wellbeing Barwon South West. A National Heart Foundation Research Fellow, Director of Research at Colac Area Health. Board Member and accredited Practising Dietitian.
Laura was scholarship recipient of the Kaplan Business School 2019 Master of Business Administration. Read more on the scholarships offered with Kaplan Business School in 2021.