Tara Intarapanya is a senior Allied Health Assistant (AHA) based in the Northern Territory. She’s a co-founder of the Allied Health Assistant Network of Australia and is a board member of the Allied Health Assistants’ National Association Ltd (AHANA). From studying a Diploma of Physiotherapy and Occupational Therapy Assistant in Ontario, Canada, through to her behind-the-scenes work on launching AHANA, Tara’s passion and vision for elevating the AHA workforce is infectious.
Tara spoke with us about championing the potential of AHAs through AHANA, and shared her personal aspirations for amplifying the future AHA workforce in Australia.
Tell us a bit about your AHA story – how did your professional journey start, and where has it taken you?
My AHA story started back in 2005, I was in Darwin and we were due to head back to Canada for a while. Before leaving Australia I met a friend at a study group, a physiotherapist. After telling me about her work she piqued my interest in the field and once I returned to Canada, I started investigating career and study pathways. I enrolled in (and completed) a Diploma of Physiotherapy and Occupational Therapy Assistant course at Mohawk College in Ontario, Canada, and it’s taken me on an incredible journey.
I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to work both in the hospital and the community, with children and with adults, servicing speech pathology, physiotherapy and occupational therapy. It really feels like a privilege to have been supported to do this work because it does take support when you first start to change environments and age groups to apply all the therapy strategies.
So that’s where my career path has taken me, through to today where I’m working back in Darwin, Australia, at Carpentaria as an allied health assistant.
What has been a defining event or highlight of your career?
A highlight of my career is really the people, both the colleagues and the people receiving allied health services that I remember along the way. There are many highlights but one that comes to mind is a patient I was working with, Joan, who was deconditioned but desperately wanting to get home. Going through the highs and lows of supporting her to get stronger and finally, successfully doing stairs, and being able and ready to go home, it was just amazing. It’s not always about the therapies, that’s what I remember the least actually, it’s the people. So that’s definitely a highlight along the way.
And I also feel very privileged to support three disciplines (speech, physio and OT) in the work that I do – I don’t think everyone gets the opportunity to do that in their health career. I feel so fortunate to be able to get the experience of three different disciplines. I couldn’t say how many defining events there have been but each little one has culminated into a rich and rewarding career overall.
Can you tell us about your involvement in establishing AHANA?
I started out on the Primary Health Network Committee, “Building the local workforce”, up here in Darwin. When one of the committee members up here heard about AHANA, they passed the word on to me. That led to me meeting some of the pioneers of AHANA, including the now CEO Ben Turnbull in late 2020. I’ve been doing my best to support AHANA’s establishment from then. I’m basically, as they say about AHAs, “Jack of all trades” – wherever the need is, I just help.
Ben has been the main driver of AHANA and it’s required a lot of time and effort on his part, which we are all very thankful for. My role was mainly to support Ben, to garner support for AHANA’s development and connect with organisations such as Healthwork Solutions, as well as assisting with funding applications, administrative support, and letting stakeholders know who we were and what we were trying to achieve.
What have some of your learnings been through the process of establishing AHANA, including the challenges or opportunities that arose?
In terms of establishing AHANA, it’s been the processes and procedures of setting up a Board as well as all the considerations that need to be made on a national level. That was very new to me. Similarly, there were challenges around understanding all these processes and procedures, and the administrative requirements, just getting my head around it, it’s like learning a new language. I can talk therapy until the cows come home but in terms of understanding all those administrative requirements and getting my head around it all, that’s been a challenge for me.
But it’s something that we’ve overcome—really, the learnings and the challenges equal the opportunities. I mean, how many people in Australia get the chance to do this? I feel very fortunate to be on the Board and have these experiences under my belt.
Another learning has been hearing all the different perspectives on allied health assistants because each person has their own perceptions, which is why establishing a national network is so important and where we see it heading in the future, creating that national consistency in the workforce. When employers think “oh I’ve got an allied health assistant”, you have a clear picture of what they’re meant to do and how they’re meant to do it, and what the relationship is meant to be like with AHAs. I think that’s a mystery for some organisations. It also brings a voice to a career that just spans so many disciplines. Allied health assistants play such a vital role, and I think we’re sometimes misunderstood or underutilised in healthcare teams.
Why is establishing a national network for AHAs so important? Where do you see it heading in the future?
In terms of where this is heading in the future, that’s a that’s a good question because we’re working on a strategic plan at the moment, but actually the members will help to guide it, so there is that element of the unknown. I think the unknown is interesting, to see where the members want this to go. Personally I would like to see it create a national voice for AHAs, and create really great frameworks to utilise allied health assistants to their maximum capacity and efficiently to improve the quality of service overall.
Personally, I would like to see a more collaborative relationship early on between vocational education and training (VET) courses and universities. It seems to take a while for a therapist to learn how to work with an assistant, because they don’t start the journey together early on. That’s not an AHANA perspective, this is my personal perspective.
It’s just different, coming from my background in Canada, you have to have the diploma to get an AHA on board, so the employer knows what you’re coming in with already. In terms of education in Australia, I’d like to see a system where it’s not so much ‘I’m going to set this job up for the AHA that’s coming in’, rather ‘I’ve got this job, and most AHA’s can fill it with support’ (discipline dependent of course). For me, I’d like to see more efficiency around this, around education, professional development and standards.
What’s your vision for the future AHA 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?
In addition to all the things I’ve mentioned, my own personal ideal or vision would be a situation where AHAs are always part of the wider health team, where healthcare consumers know ‘this is my allied health assistant’ and they’re a common part of the health vocabulary.
There’s still a lot of unknowns, like how do we want to move as a group? I can’t speak for the whole workforce. I can just give you my own perspective, but another question I would have for the AHA workforce is around the value of AHAs doing multidisciplinary specialisations. When I trained, I did physio and OT, and there’s a lot of value having that double lens. You’re more employable, it becomes more efficient.
In my opinion, I feel that Australia should consider a similar packaging of complementary disciplines, such as speech and dietetics, podiatry and physio, physio and OT, OT and speech. A double specialisation would support AHAs to gain that multidisciplinary lens, as that’s a requirement of many jobs. I know many AHAs are straight physio assistants, for example, but it doesn’t give us the opportunity to see clients/patients holistically. I think we can do the profession and workforce more justice if we’re able to do that because we’re supposed to assist a multidisciplinary team. Maybe that’s a bit pie in the sky or controversial but that would be another thing I would like to see, I think there’s a lot of value in it.
Tara Intarapanya, thank you so much for sharing these insights into your career and your involvement with AHANA.
Please share your thoughts about the allied health assistant space by leaving a comment below. Subscribe to Allied Health Insights to receive incisive and up-to-date allied health commentary and solutions. | Check out our recent features on AHAs: Meet Ben Turnbull, CEO of the Allied Health Assistants’ National Association; A-Z of Allied Health – Allied Health Assistance; and Introducing An Allied Health Assistant into your service? 5 Key Systems & Structures To Help You Streamline The Process
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