Studying psychiatry at degree level in Cambodia can be tough proposition; say 3 young graduates Sao Chamroeun, Huong Pisey and Sok Hong. But since completing their studies, these doctors have been appointed pioneering roles as policy officers within the newly established Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse. This department is the inaugural recipient of the Thomas Trauer Fund, and the emerging leaders have come to Australia to learn more about community based care and implementation from Victoria’s mental health services.
Although the Department is based in Phnom Penh, in the planning stages for the 3 week program, it was clear that for Cambodia access to services has to extend past the urban settings and into district and commune based health settings. It was a visit to GV Health, which offered the opportunity to see how Australia’s rural health services have taken up the challenges of providing care over greater distances. Covering the municipalities of Mitchell, Murrindindi, Strathbogie, Greater Shepparton and Moira can include challenges such as a 110km median one way travel distance from source of referral to care and treatment as found in a 2009 study.
Clinical Director Ravi Bhat and his team highlighted the wide range of strategies and innovations in rural mental health including development of outreach services and ‘embedding’ mental health clinicians in primary health care service locations to bring specialists services nearer to communities as well as maximising economies of scale and efficiencies by integrating functions within a team. “it was surprising to us to see that the workforce development was happening at the rural services rather than only in the cities” commented Dr. Sao.
However, much enthusiasm came from discussing another highlight of the visit to Shepparton- the opportunity to see the night sky free from light pollution of the big cities. Scanned for thousands of years by the world’s first astronomers the Aboriginal people, this was the first time for the Cambodians to see some of our most familiar sights in the southern hemisphere night sky. Sok Hong commented “I will keep that memory of the stars with me for a long time”.