Allied health professional associations serve as vital platforms for collaboration, standard-setting and advocacy, ensuring that AHPs are well-equipped to deliver high-quality care.
They can potentially foster communities of practice to drive innovation and continuous learning. By extension, professional associations can contribute significantly to people’s holistic health and well-being, addressing gaps and shaping healthcare policies for a more inclusive and effective system, especially with effective management and good governance.
Just ask clinical physiologist (sleep) Kelli Rixon, who played a key role as Founding Director and President of the Australian Council for Clinical Physiologists (ACCP), and now helms HealthWork Solutions as General Manager.
We had a chat with Kelli about her career in clinical physiology, professional peak body management, and the importance of good governance in health care.
Let’s hear about your tandem careers in clinical physiology and healthcare association management
Prior to starting with HealthWork Solutions, I’ve always worked in a public health service setting. When I graduated from uni I worked in cardiac rehabilitation and pulmonary rehab in a community setting, and then these programs moved into a hospital setting.
At that point, I added respiratory science work into my job (this was a new service established at the hospital). As that contract came to an end, one of the respiratory physicians I worked with also did sleep medicine at another local hospital and encouraged me to apply for a sleep scientist vacancy there. I’ve been a sleep scientist ever since. So that was 20 years ago—time flies!
I certainly enjoyed the variety that comes with working as a clinical physiologist: no two days are the same, and no two patients are the same. The challenge of finding the best way to help a patient to get good outcomes is what drove me in that work.
I was the clinical educator for respiratory and sleep science, and also cardiac physiology and neurophysiology. These professions are collectively referred to as clinical measurement sciences or clinical physiology professions. So in that role, I developed the student placement program for these professions, working with the universities who offered relevant courses for entry into the professions, the students and the placement supervisors in the hospital to ensure that students placements were scaffolded appropriately, and ensure the students had a positive and productive experience while on placement. The role included supporting new graduates who were entering the profession through their training period as well.
I worked hard to establish the identity of these professionals across the health service and the tertiary institutions—because no one really knew what they were—as well as develop a competency framework for the professions, which outlines the knowledge and skills that they need to be able to do the jobs across those four areas, and their scope of practice.
And then an opportunity came up to step into a business manager role across those four specialties, and our clinical genomics service. In that business manager role, I felt I was better able to support the service design and delivery, and address attraction and retention issues across the departments—I was also able to provide a voice up to the executive level for these professions and services.
That sounds like a natural progression from the clinical space to management
At that clinical level, you’re impacting one patient at a time, which is great, but at that governance and management level, you can have a big impact, because you’re providing support to many health care workers who then are better able to deliver care. So you can have more impact, more rapidly.
So you were there for the early evolution of the clinical physiology professions?
The clinical physiology professions have always been around (long before I arrived on the scene), but they’ve evolved since the time I started: from not having any sort of entry pathway or qualification, to now having an accreditation framework around those professions, and more support and profession recognition—which is the work of the ACCP. They were initially seen as technical support positions sitting within a traditional medical-model, and they’re coming into their own now, recognised under the “allied health” banner across many jurisdictions.
Is there anything that stands out from your clinical career that you’re most proud of?
I’m proud that I’ve been able to help with the creation of the professional identity for clinical physiology, both across the health services where I’ve worked, and across Australia. The clinical physiology professions traditionally operate differently to the therapeutic ones. Getting seen now as a profession in our own right—rather than as a support service—through accreditation.
Tell me about your experiences establishing and managing the Australian Council for Clinical Physiologists (ACCP) professional association
I’m a founding director of the ACCP, and I’ve been the president of the organisation for the last four years. The ACCP is an accreditation body that exists to provide clinical governance for the clinical physiology professions; cardiac physiology, neurophysiology, sleep science and respiratory science. With accreditation and governance, it ensures that the community can be confident that systems are in place to ensure accredited clinical physiologists are delivering safe and high quality care.
Prior to 2018, these professions were unregulated—professional association membership wasn’t compulsory, and there were no entry requirements into the profession. Anyone could call themselves a sleep scientist or a cardiac scientist, without anything to back that up. The establishment of the ACCP was driven by the foresight of a handful of senior clinical physiologists across Australia, with seed funding from the professional associations. It took over 10 years for the organisation to be established. That was 10 years of volunteer time by senior clinicians—no one was getting paid for that—setting up an organisation from scratch and setting up clinical governance for their profession. That’s obviously why these things take time; people often run out of energy with this stuff as well, as this is all done above and beyond what they’re doing for their regular work. I see now if 10-15 years ago, something like HealthWork Solutions existed—something that could be supporting those processes and setting up an organisation from scratch, the way it was done for AHANA, then the ACCP would have been established and operating a lot sooner.
Just having that sort of support from that allied health perspective would have been handy.
And what key lessons stand out from your time as President of the ACCP?
Just the importance of inter-professional and intra-professional collaboration. Across our professions, we’ve got amazing clinicians—they’ve all got varied experiences and different work settings, and there’s something to learn from everyone. Our ACCP board that we’ve had over the last couple of years has been more indicative of the diversity across clinical physiology. We have directors who are in both the public and private sectors, in metropolitan and regional settings, and across clinical, academic and management settings. For our accreditation scheme to work across the professions across the full spectrum, input at that board level is really important to make sure that that diversity is catered for.
What direction would you like to see professional associations take in Australia?
I think there are gaps in terms of collaboration across professional associations—those opportunities for communities of practice, across professions or for professionals that are at similar stages in their career. I think that is where the next step up is, particularly for our clinical physiology group.
Why would that be useful for the ACCP?
We’re in a unique position in that we’ve got clinical physiology as a profession, and under that there are four different types of clinical physiology professions you can be in. We have some registrants who work across multiple clinical physiology professions. So the ACCP has had to work with the four professional associations, to make sure that what we deliver is right and fit for purpose.
When we put together the accreditation framework, we had to provide this one document that was applicable for clinical physiologists who do different jobs—get them to a point where they could agree, but also share the challenges. When you’re just dealing with a professional association or accreditation board that looks after one professional group, you’re very good at addressing those profession-centric issues, but we’ve had to think a bit more broadly.
We all work in different contexts and it’s important to bring that together, and I think there’s more opportunity for that to happen across clinical physiology in general. Even if there’s a new graduate collaboration, or community across those professions or, a senior manager one or research community, or a self-regulated professions group, but then extending to include other allied health professions as well. I think there’s just lots that can be learned from every profession.
Do you think collaboration across professional associations would have been useful during the consultation phase of the Scope of Practice Review?
I think so. Often when questions are put to us around allied health issues, you’re not just advocating for your own profession. You might be in a cohort of, say, 25 allied health professions; so you’re often not just speaking on behalf of your own profession, you’re representing up to 25 different professions. I think there is benefit in having that collaboration, that combined response on things, that one voice with multiple signatures on a document..
So what does what does leadership in allied health mean to you?
Advocacy: you’re not just advocating for your own profession, you’re often advocating on behalf of multiple professions, and providing that voice. I think leadership is about supporting those around you and your team to do the best that they can, and recognising the contributions that each person or profession makes to service delivery and patient care.
How do you think COVID has affected our attitudes to allied health?
Obviously, COVID had far reaching impacts across the entire workforce, and everyone in healthcare just had to keep working regardless, and many left professions. But in my experience, where I was working at the time, allied health certainly got a seat at the table during COVID. Allied health are in a unique position, having knowledge and input and experience across the entire patient journey in healthcare.
They were able to make connections and change processes so that care could continue throughout that period. I think that allied health showed that they were resilient, adaptable and willing to get the work done, whether through things like telehealth, changes to care pathways, collaboration, or just modifications to testing processes to reduce their own exposure risk to COVID—but still obtaining that important clinical information to inform decision-making.
You’ve been volunteering with sleepbus. Such a great charity.
One of the things that prompted me to get involved with sleepbus is just how much more visible homelessness is now. It’s everywhere and it’s just going to get worse, it’s not just one person that can’t keep a roof over their head, they’re trying to keep a roof over their whole family. I think having and keeping a safe shelter is going to get harder for people. sleepbus is great, I’ve been involved with the service for a couple of years now since it started in Queanbeyan. It’s a service that provides an opportunity for people sleeping rough to have a safe place to sleep for the night, if they need it. So the bus and volunteers arrive at the location around eight o’clock at night, and then guests can get on from 8.30. The bus is closed up at 10 o’clock, the rest of the volunteers go home and I get to sleep on the bus. Then the guests are woken up between six and seven in the morning, and they’re on their way.
Each guest gets their own little sleep pod, their own enclosed area that they get to sleep in, and they’re safe for the night—there’s fresh linen, night lights, usb charging ports, tablets for watching TV, a toilet and air-con/heating. It’s private, and it’s their own space. I do a caretaker shift once a week (sometimes twice), so I stay overnight on the bus and look after the guests if they need anything.
It has been quite confronting just how much more visible homelessness is, and sleep’s important; obviously, I’m a sleep scientist! Sleep is a basic and essential need. sleepbus is a stopgap to at least provide that for people until better and permanent options are available.
The positive difference in our guests after having a safe sleep is awesome. Think about how you feel after a good night’s sleep, then think about what that would be like if you’d been sleeping rough for days, weeks, months or years. It’s nice to be able to help make that difference in people’s lives.
And you were awarded an Australia Day honour for your work with sleepbus.
Yes, I was awarded Citizen of the Year by the Queanbeyan-Palerang Regional Council in January for my work with sleepbus. While I was humbled by the acknowledgement, I didn’t think it was necessary. The sleepbus service is a massive team effort and without the amazing volunteers showing up for the local community it wouldn’t happen. I am grateful to be able to have this opportunity to give back and hang out with a great bunch of volunteers each week.