Ben Turnbull, founding CEO of AHANA describes his inspiring career trajectory, and how his experience of rehabilitation following a serious car accident led him to become an allied health assistant (AHA). A decade later, Ben was instrumental in forming the NSW association for allied health assistants, which ultimately led to the formation of the Allied Health Assistant National Association in 2022.
We caught up with Ben recently to talk about his career path, the development of AHANA, his overall vision for AHAs, and why a self-regulated allied health assistant workforce is important.
Tell us about your professional journey and experiences as an allied health assistant: how did you get started, and where has it taken you?
My journey started back in 2011. I’d suffered a motor vehicle accident and was receiving treatment through the hospital and rehabilitation systems. While at a facility, I attended intensive rehabilitation from a range of allied health professionals (AHPs) and AHAs, doctors and medical staff. I spent almost six months in both hospital and rehabilitation. Following my discharge and return home, I spent another two-and-a-half years in intensive outpatient rehabilitation.
In 2013, I restarted my journey in education and after a year of study in different fields, an opportunity opened up to complete a Certificate IV in Allied Health Assistance. While completing the course, I undertook work experience at a local allied health facility where I obtained the necessary skills and passion to continue along this career path.
After completing my training, I obtained work at a local aged care facility where I worked under a physiotherapist and assisted clients with their treatment plans. While working at the facility, I regularly liaised with nurses and the physiotherapist by either directly discussing client treatments or providing updates through various forms and progress notes. A few months later, I took on an additional role as the Chief Administration Officer and AHA at a medical practice, where I regularly liaised with various government departments, took observations for patients, developed and maintained databases, collaborated with AHPs, medical staff and provided support with relevant forms and documentation for the AHPs and doctors.
I built on this early career experience with time overseas. During my travels, I visited various rehabilitation facilities and was able to compare different service models and technologies with my experiences in Australia. On returning home, I completed further work experience at both a local hospital and rehabilitation facility where I worked with several different physiotherapists, and gained exposure to a variety of conditions. This also built my medical record writing skills as I learnt how to complete progress notes and medical forms. I then obtained work at a local disability agency, where I worked as an AHA and Disability Support Worker. I assisted clients who received support from AHPs, including hydrotherapy and support while they attended treatment at allied health facilities.
Working in this role allowed me to hone my observation skills, work with a variety of conditions and ultimately allowed me to foresee the opportunities, similarities and differences between support workers, allied health, and health assistant workforces.
This is where I identified my desire to do more within the AHA role. I wanted to build on my skills and lessons to help others working in the health assistant workforce (allied health assistance and support workers) recognise their own skill sets, opportunities and build career pathways.
What has been a defining event or highlight of your career?
A major defining moment in my experience was my car accident. I overcame many hurdles, and the lessons I learned along the allowed me to pursue a different career in health where I can use my experiences and skills to help people, the community and consequently support and rehabilitate people.
Before my accident, I had been accepted into university and had planned to study an allied health professional degree, but the accident meant it had to be put on hold. Instead, I found an opportunity to enter the health industry when a Certificate IV in Allied Health Assistance was being run at a local education facility. Completing this course provided me with the skills and the opportunity to begin my career in the health field. Pursuing this qualification, provided me with the opportunity to enter the health workforce, which has always been a dream of mine.
After completing my course, I’ve worked as an allied health assistant in both the public and private system, disability and aged care fields. I’ve had experience in managerial roles as an allied health assistant, and worked as a support worker. These experiences have allowed me to develop my career and have allowed me to work in a role that I am passionate doing.
Another highlight of my career has been developing the Allied Health Assistants National Association (AHANA) in Australia. It has always been my passion to give back and share the same opportunities that I received following my hospital and rehabilitation journey. Being able to develop and promote a workforce that assists and supports individuals throughout their journey is a passion and goal that I continue pursuing. The AHA workforce has the capacity to better support and offer treatments to individuals and communities, as well as give AHPs adequate time to successfully and proficiently develop, monitor and work with AHAs.
How did you help to get the Allied Health Assistants National Association (AHANA) up and running?
It all started when I connected with someone in Victoria who had developed the Allied Health Assistant Victorian Network who mentored me with the necessary skills and assistance to develop the New South Wales Allied Health Assistant Network.
I first started the process in mid-2019, collecting data from all of the allied health services in NSW and developing a database. I contacted over 2,000 businesses to find out if they employed AHAs and if they knew about the AHA workforce. In these communications I briefly outlined the role and opportunities of employing an AHA.
I then formed a committee that met monthly to discuss opportunities and the progression of the NSW Network. After several meetings, development, and consultation with industry, I reconnected with my Victorian contact. Soon after, the Allied Health Assistant Network of Australia was formed – the forerunner to the Allied Health Assistants’ National Association Ltd.
Following the expansion of our state networks and forming Allied Health Assistants National Association, the focus turned to developing and providing opportunities to grow the AHA workforce. I connected with a government organisation to assist us with connecting and consulting with various education and research organisations. They provided the Network with opportunities to grow and ultimately develop the AHA workforce.
As we were establishing the Network, I developed a resource library and peer resources with input from our various teams, The Network committee met on a monthly basis discussing our development, opportunities and more. We also used social media as a platform for communication and to discuss topics related to AHAs and the Network.
We were invited to be a part of two research opportunities which has assisted our development and promoted the AHA profession: CSIA- AHA Good Practice Guide and NACRE Consulting: Better Understanding the Role of Allied Health Assistants.
After around 18 months of development and consultation, I was connected by an allied health researcher who was interested in our work and soon after, provided us with the opportunity to develop into a company which would later become the Allied Health Assistants Network of Australia.
What led you to the conclusion that allied health assistants need a self-regulating body?
Some AHPs argue that an AHA workforce could cause demand for AHPs to drop. How would you (or AHANA) argue that this is not the case?
Which key learnings stand out from helping to establish AHANA?
The challenges I have experienced include difficulties connecting with allied health businesses, services and managers who believe that such a workforce should not be managed by AHAs – that we do not have the knowledge and skillsets. I have also been told that as I am ‘only’ an AHA, I do not have the capability to pursue and develop this workforce.
Through the work, life experiences and training I have received, I am motivated and driven to build, develop and maintain this workforce. I have learnt what opportunities and gaps there are around provision of care within the allied health workforce. I believe that as a united and formed body, AHANA can support and tighten the gaps on many issues which the allied health system is facing.
The AHA workforce has only been formally recognised in the last 10 or so years. This has highlighted the change of mindset, of how the community perceives this workforce, due to how the role operated previously and how people evidently entered the role.
Through the learnings of working in a variety of settings and in numerous roles as an AHA, I have learnt the similarities between AHAs and various other health/disability/medical assistant roles and how they can be intertwined or connected together so that they can achieve the overall goal of assisting AHPs, allied health services and promote the wellbeing and health of the wider community.
Why is establishing a national network for AHAs so important? Where do you see it headed?
Establishing AHANA provides reassurance to AHPs and the wider community that there is a standard which governs the AHA workforce and that AHAs they are equipped with the satisfactory knowledge and skills to support, treat and work with the community and AHPs. AHANA professionalises the AHA workforce and gives AHAs a voice.
The AHA workforce has the potential to reduce the burden on the health system and reduce the costs by increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of allied health work. The establishment of AHANA will enable a necessary, up to date, sufficiently trained and work-ready workforce to accommodate and support the health needs of the community. It will also support AHAs to broaden their skill sets, and in time, we hope, will develop a formal pathway to becoming an allied health professional and undertaking a healthcare degree. It also allows for the wider community to connect with trained and work ready allied health assistants.
With AHANA’s maintenance of the AHA workforce, it will allow AHPs peace of mind and adequate time to undertake research and evaluation to develop, maintain and improve an individual’s treatment plan and goals. An AHP who is proficiently equipped with the training and skills to sufficiently delegate to AHAs will increase their cost effectiveness and reduce their workloads which allows them to focus and spend the necessary time on managing, assessing and evaluating treatment plans.
I envision this workforce becoming the minimum standard for the care and workforce sector and AHANA becoming the leading body which monitors health assistants, allied health assistants and support worker.
What’s your vision for the allied health assistant workforce? What would you like to see done differently within the AHA profession and/or the wider allied health workforce to improve quality health care delivery?
I would like continue to develop and build upon the foundations of AHA workforce so that it becomes both a lifelong career opportunity for individuals and provide a pathway for individuals who seek to further their career to transition into an allied health degree and consequently become an AHP.
A future endeavour of mine is to be able to replicate AHANA on a global scale and subsequently form an international AHA federation. This will enable the workforce to target skills, workforce and health gaps which impact health and communities on both a national and international scale.
I believe that the AHA workforce, with adequate and sufficiently maintained training, will enable the health system to restore and resolve many issues it faces today. I believe there is potential to improve the transferability between healthcare, medical, allied health and rehabilitation assistant courses and improve, restore health shortages and other issues which currently burden our health system.
Ben Turnbull, thank you so much for sharing these insights into your career.
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