Monash health courses celebrate milestone anniversaries and the power of practical solutions to the big issues

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust health professionals into the spotlight, making them the most listened to and trusted experts on the world stage. Chief Health Officers around the country are household names, and there is a deep and abiding public respect for all the front-line health workers who have kept us safe without fanfare.

Now in its 60th year, Monash University trains health professionals across all major disciplines - from medicine, to nursing, allied health professions, psychology and social work. We also educate and support leading medical researchers and policy makers.

Three Monash health courses, which have produced so many of these trusted experts and are developing the health leaders of the future, are celebrating milestone anniversaries this year. Monash Medicine has been part of the University since its inception, and so turns sixty in 2021. Physiotherapy and Occupational Therapy both mark their fifteenth year this year.

All three Monash courses are renowned for producing resilient, innovative graduates, who are well-equipped to face emerging challenges and expanding horizons in their fields. And all three courses have pivoted to new technologies and ways of working in the age of COVID-19.

In a complex health landscape, multidisciplinary cooperation is vital to the best outcomes for patients, and the Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences recognises the importance of equipping students with excellent team behaviours, and the resilience and innovation to confront the big systems problems of our time.

Medical school building 1965

Workforce-ready doctors with empathy and a real-world approach to challenges

Given its elite status as a medical course among those offered by the Group of Eight – the top research-intensive universities in the country – it’s hard to believe Monash medical school started as recently as 1963, one hundred years after the previous medical school had opened in Australia.

A combination of diverse, world-leading clinical schools led by highly skilled clinician teachers, a focus on real-world solutions and an emphasis on both doctor and patient safety has made the course one of the most sought-after in the country, with a reputation as one of the best medical courses in the world.

Innovation has always been at the heart of Monash Medicine. The course was one of the first to use simulation, and it is at the forefront of advances in public health and preventive medicine, and in the emerging area of telehealth.

Today, Monash’s medical school reaches far and wide. The faculty’s School of Rural Health is the oldest and one of the largest rural health schools in the country, and for the last ten years the school has been co-delivering a synchronous program with Monash in Malaysia. “The entire course is delivered in two countries, which is unique,” says Professor Leech. “We work closely with our colleagues in Malaysia to deliver an identical curriculum and assessment.”

The final year of the course is structured so that interns are out in the workforce and embedded in multidisciplinary teams before they officially start. This builds good team behaviours and increases their exposure to and comfort with patients.

“Above all, we’re training our students to arrive in the workforce ready to practice,’ says the head of the school, Professor Michelle Leech. “We want them to start their journey in a safe way and to thrive.”

Professor Leech is an alum of the very course she now leads. “When I entered the course in 1987, Monash had a reputation for being a forward-thinking and less “establishment” place,” Professor Leech says. “There is a commitment to continuous learning – ancora imparo – that continues to exist here, and I feel incredibly proud to be a Monash graduate, and to be a Monash Medicine graduate.”

“I want to model a culture that encourages leadership and kindness; to ensure that education and learning are safe. If graduates feel supported and cared for in their learning it will make them better, more empathetic doctors – it will complement their clinical acumen.”

“People who feel safe make others feel safe - the ultimate goal of any doctor should be to make patients feel safe.”

Medicine Class of 1966 (first graduates)

Physiotherapy at fifteen

When the Monash Physiotherapy course began in 2006, there was no other program like it. “It was practical and hands-on, innovative, integrating disciplines such as basic biomedicine, pharmacology and anatomy into a comprehensive and practical course,” says department head, Professor Prue Morgan, who has been on staff since the course began.

“When we started, we were looking for future stars who would enable us to develop critical research capacity,” says Professor Morgan. “We didn’t have 100 years of precedent to draw upon, so we needed to build and develop this capacity.”

“At the time we were hoping to establish a new allied health centre on the Mornington Peninsula, starting from scratch and addressing the local workforce needs. We had no infrastructure in 2006 – one of our staff had to develop and equip a research laboratory so we could conduct all our work.”

As with Medicine, broader social shifts have brought Physiotherapy into sharp relief in recent years. Sedentary behaviour and the importance of physical activity are, more than ever, issues of focus in the public domain. The pandemic has also had an impact. “It has been an opportunity to speak about physical activity to the public,” Professor Morgan says. “There is a growing understanding of the role of Physiotherapy in intensive care, and more public attention on what Physiotherapy can offer, particularly for those with long COVID.”

“The pandemic forced us to consider innovations in telehealth, which is no mean feat in a discipline as hands-on as Physio,” says Professor Morgan. “We are developing sustainable options for the future of treating remote and regional patients using technology.”

Researchers like Associate Professor Peter Malliaras, who is conducting ground-breaking work that remotely measures a patient’s range of motion and movement, are leading this charge.

“Students not only learn how to deliver services remotely, they also address the question of how best to engage different patient groups,” says Professor Morgan. “They consider which patients can be treated safely in this way, and whether patients are able to safely follow advice provided using telehealth.”

Fifteen years of Occupational Therapy

The broader community commitment to inclusion and full participation, and widespread interest in building healthy communities, underpin the continued popularity of Monash University’s Occupational Therapy course. Along with Physiotherapy, the course is celebrating its fifteenth year this year, and has achieved impressive teaching and research results in that relatively short time.

As with Physiotherapy, there has been a recent growth in public understanding of the discipline – and this is something the Head of Department, Professor Ellie Fossey, is keen to foster.  “The course inculcates the idea that Occupational Therapy encompasses the diverse range of activities we engage in to live a full life,” she says.

“We are expanding the real-world applications for Occupational Therapy at all stages of life, from kindergarten to aged care, and at every stage in between, through innovations in fieldwork and work-integrated learning – specifically our participatory community projects (PCPs).”

In particular, the course is developing initiatives aimed at growing workforce capability for disability practice.

“We have a high quality, highly committed interdisciplinary team of experienced academics with diverse backgrounds and expertise across wide-ranging health and community care contexts internationally,” says Professor Fossey.

“They are active contributors to the academic literature, and conduct research and innovation across a broad range of fields including assistive technology, mental health care and research, co-designing research with consumers, return to work and employment support interventions and health professional education and curriculum-focused research.”

A number of Monash Occupational Therapy graduates are now contributing to Occupational Therapy education and practice development internationally, including in Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore, and the school has assisted the establishment of a new Occupational Therapy program in Saudi Arabia, at the world's largest women's university: Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University (PNU).

Our community continues the work of a quality education

The significant impact these departments have had and continue to have on our healthcare system is, in large part, due to the achievements of our diverse and expansive alumni community and future health professionals.

We are so proud of our alumni - inspiring, capable, confident and influential professionals leading, delivering and innovating healthcare locally and globally. So many are notable leaders in our hospital and healthcare settings, as well as in academia, and have come much more to the public’s attention during this pandemic.

Our students are continuing to contribute to the healthcare system, even during these most challenging pandemic times, becoming part of our surge workforce and developing innovative initiatives where they see needs and opportunities.

So much has been achieved since these courses commenced at Monash and we look forward to seeing how they and their respective alumni and student communities continue to shape the future of healthcare delivery and adapt to the many challenges and opportunities ahead.