Introduction: Rural health career outreach programs promote health careers to secondary students and aim to address rural health workforce shortages. This study analyses student feedback data from Aspire2Health, a multi-disciplinary rural health career outreach program conducted in Queensland Australia before COVID in 2019 and during COVID lockdown and isolation periods during 2020-2021. The study aims were to assess the suitability of the program and its elements, the programs short-term impact on students’ interest in health careers, and whether COVID restrictions on program delivery affected students’ program experience and outcomes.
Methods: We conducted statistical and semantic analysis of data collected pre- and peri-COVID from participating secondary students living in regional, rural, and remote Australian communities. Data validity was established by triangulating: quantitative results from items using a 5-point Likert scales, qualitative themes from short response items, and frequency analysis of themes. Data was collected pre-COVID (2019, n = 125) and peri-COVID (2020-21, n = 248).
Results: Student responses to the program remained extremely positive despite COVID-imposed restrictions. Feedback scores indicated quite strong agreement in pre- and peri-COVID periods that the program motivated students to pursue a career in health (M = 4.6 pre-COVID vs. M = 4.5 peri-COVID) and that students would recommend the program to a friend (M = 4.8 pre-COVID vs. M = 4.7 peri-COVID). Overall ratings of the event were high, though a drop occurred during the peri-COVID period (M = 4.8 pre-COVID vs. M = 4.7 peri-COVID; p = 0.043). Activity interest rankings indicated that irrespective of the pandemic, clinical skills sessions, meeting health professionals, and watching the emergency scenario were more interesting to students than ambulance and hospital tours (p < 0.001). Four themes were generated from analyzing qualitative data. In response to the item 'What did you enjoy the most?' the themes were: clinical skills (n = 203, 55% of respondents) and interacting with professionals (n = 146, 39% of respondents). Responses to 'Is there anything we could do differently?' produced the themes: no changes required (n = 158, 58% of respondents) and variety and duration (n = 40, 11% of respondents). Variety and duration described students’ desire for more variety, more professionals, and more time to engage in activities. The themes and their frequency among student responses indicate strong support for the validity of the results.
Conclusion: This study found that: 1) the Aspire2Heath program continued to motivate rural students to pursue health careers during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 2) student interest is greatest during activities with hands-on clinical skills and student-professional interactions. These results suggests that rural health career outreach programs can be run under challenging social circumstances with confidence that students can be successfully encouraged to pursue health careers. Furthermore, program design should emphasize hands-on clinical skills and interactions with professions. These findings have practical implications for rural health career outreach programs, particularly those faced with restricted financing or external circumstances limiting their access to external healthcare resources.