Much effort has been expended in recent years attempting to reform the Australian health system in order to deliver more efficient and effective systems of care for an ageing and increasingly chronically ill population. Rural health care systems in particular have been a focus of reform programs, and new initiatives such as University Departments of Rural Health, Regional Health Service structures and Commonwealth primary care initiatives have been designed to improve service provision and health status for rural people. However, with these attempts to reform the way rural communities understand and manage their health care, surprisingly little has changed in the day-to-day business of health care in rural and regional areas. Paradoxically, while rural communities have moved to embrace new farming technologies and environmental perspectives along with modern land management practices, revegetation and sustainable production systems, the same enthusiasm for change does not appear to have been kindled in relation to health system reforms. Rural communities, in terms of health care, are still using the equivalent of outmoded farming practices and other environmentally and economically unsustainable approaches to managing their affairs. Why might this be and what can be done to improve the current state of health reform in our rural and regional areas? The paper explores systems change in relation to health reform in rural communities and highlights several strategies for bringing about a functional synthesis of research and health service practice to create a more effective health care system in rural South Australia.