INTRODUCTION: Like Indigenous populations in other countries, an epidemic of chronic disease has swept across Australia's Indigenous communities in the past decade. The Northern Territory and Queensland health departments initiated preventable chronic disease strategies in 1999 and 2001, respectively. Yet finding innovative ways to translate this to the health workforce was challenging. Through support from the Australian Government, three universities, two health departments and two Indigenous organisations worked in partnership to improve workforce capacity in remote and rural communities through innovative education. METHODS: The methods included: (i) a training needs analysis consisting of 76 semi-structured interviews with key informants, and 35 surveys of remote staff; (ii) a literature and resource review; (iii) the development of a curriculum framework using: the existing competencies and standards across the health disciplines; the identified workforce needs; and what the workforce can impact upon; (iv) a multidisciplinary workshop with 35 educators across northern Australia that resulted in the basis for agreement of the final curriculum content and framework; (v) the development of a chronic disease self-assessment tool that was piloted with remote health staff; (vi) an assisted integration process for key stakeholders. An evaluation framework was also developed, as a separate project, in conjunction with the project partners during this time. RESULTS: This project identified that a paradigm shift is required in the way in which we educate the entire health workforce to deal effectively with the impact of chronic disease across remote, rural and Indigenous populations. In particular a need was found to educate the educators in the chronic care model and in using a population health approach. The training needs analysis identified very little difference between the education and training needs across the rural and remote health disciplines; it was perceived that they managed chronic disease fairly well yet found prevention and early detection to be at the 'hard end'. The main barriers identified were the demands of acute care over chronic disease management, compounded by high workforce turnover in remote areas. The curriculum framework, in particular the domains of remote practice, is being used by several Australian universities, health departments and non-government organisations in adapting their existing or new education programs. The self-assessment tool was based on the curriculum outcomes and was piloted in 2005 and found to be very useful for pre- and post-training purposes and as a discussion starter for all disciplines and groups. CONCLUSIONS: A practical curriculum framework now exists to integrate a population health approach for the prevention and early detection of chronic disease when educating the primary healthcare workforce. It is relevant to all health disciplines and is flexible in that it can be adapted, or adopted, depending on the educational needs of the disciplinary group. It is being imbedded into numerous undergraduate, postgraduate, and professional development programs in Australia. It includes: the core learning outcomes expected of any workforce, resources, and a self-assessment tool in chronic disease. These tools are assisting educators in the required paradigm shift required of the workforce to alter the single disease based practice model towards a comprehensive and integrated population based approach required for the workforce in the 21st century.