Farmers have been urged to pay more attention to their health and quality of life. Lauren Dean reports.
Farmers are often known to be stoic about their health and well-being, with Health and Safety Executive (HSE) research confirming people who work in agriculture were less likely to take time off work due to sickness.
It also found farmers often spoke about feeling down or being worried, but when directly asked about their mental health, few were keen to talk about it. However, two new initiatives aim to help address key farming health issues.
A crisis in rural GP numbers has led to a ground-breaking initiative at Queens University Belfast. Its third-year medical students can now take a rural health module which incorporates a three-week work placement to help encourage students to become doctors in rural areas.
One of the students taking the module, Victoria Livingstone, 21, said she did not know what to expect, despite being a farmer’s daughter. As part of the module, Ms Livingstone milked cows with a dairy farmer and sheared sheep at another farm, the experience being a chance for student doctors to better understand the rural community.
Medical student Victoria Livingstone
She said: “There were lots of people who were socially isolated and who would not usually present themselves to a doctor. It was interesting to chat to people as most just need a little bit of encouragement.”
Module leader Dr Rebecca Orr said the stoic nature of farmers often led to stubbornness about using health services.
“Farmers tend to see it as a weakness to visit their GP and they go on thinking they can sort it themselves," said Dr Orr.
“The students really got the sense of the community, and now have the experience to perhaps consider a career in rural areas.”
Farmers at Clitheroe mart praised the Field Nurse scheme and the opportunity it afforded to get checked over.
Farmer Stephen Aspin said: “It is so handy as it kills two birds with one stone. I just come now and again, but it gives me the encouragement I am alright.”
Retired farmer Julie Ford said she much preferred dropping in to the Field Nurse than having to make appointments with her GP.
She said: “I think it is brilliant. I dropped in because I was concerned about high blood pressure and they referred me to my own doctor. I now visit in the clinic when I come to the mart and the nurses do regular check-ups.”
But action is already taking place the farming community. A new grant- and community-funded initiative, Field Nurse, runs at Gisburn and Clitheroe auction marts, offering farmers the chance to discuss health concerns and receive confidential professional advice.
Registered nurse Jane Spurgeon said part of her role as a field nurse was being a familiar face and somebody to trust and talk to.
She said farmers tended to consider themselves healthy, but often ignored health issues which could lead to long-term problems.
Ms Spurgeon said: “The idea is we can do basic checks for anyone – farmers, wagon drivers, anyone around the auction.
“Most farmers are farming into their older years and they will not give up, so the idea is we want to keep them farming and ensure they are not going to take two weeks off to nurse a bad back, or time off because they need a knee replacement.”
The Field Nurse is trained to carry out simple tasks, such as checking blood pressure and calculating Body Mass Index (BMI).
“The main thing getting people through the door is to check their blood pressure then the conversation tends to evolve," added Ms Spurgeon.
“We definitely do not replace the GP, we simply offer the advice and reassurance that it is necessary to go.”