Medical students need more training opportunities to stay in regions, rural health expert says

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Integrated medical training in regional Australia is often hailed as the best way to keep doctors in the country, but experts say there’s more to it.

Doctor shortages in the regions predate the pandemic, with local Victorians struggling to get GP appointments and opting to go to the emergency room for smaller issues.

The Monash Rural Health Graduate Entry Program in Churchill has been in existence for 10 years.

During this period, 250 students of regional origin took the course with the remaining students of metropolitan or international origin.

Of over 1,000 graduates, 51 graduates remained to work in Gippsland.

Sean Atkinson was among the program’s very first cohort of students. For him, the decision to study and practice in a rural setting has always been easy.

Locally raised Sean Atkinson says GPs can have a big impact on a community.(Flickr: Brea Cunningham, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“I’ve lived 95 per cent of my life in Gippsland and… felt I was in a good position to hopefully be able to try and bridge the gap of lack of medical care,” Dr Atkinson said.

Now Dr Atkinson is a lecturer for the course in Churchill and works as a GP in nearby Trafalgar.

He stressed the importance for metro students to see for themselves the differences in rural and regional health outcomes.

“They may not know exactly what to expect…but once they have interacted with the educators, [and] with local clinicians, they actually find it to be a place they would come back to,” Dr. Atkinson said.

Lack of specialized training in the regions

Monash Rural Health chief Shane Bullock said the biggest problem with trying to retain medical students in the area was that many specialist courses were only available in the town.

“We’re really trying to increase their opportunities to further their education in rural Gippsland, so that’s the real challenge,” he said.

Professor Bullock said Monash Rural Health has partnered with the Federal Government to establish training centers across Greater Victoria, including Gippsland and North West Victoria, to increase access to training specialized.

A doctor and a group of medical students look out the window at the hospital room
In Monash Rural Health’s graduate-entry medical degree, 30 of 73 places are reserved for students from the regions.(Pexels: Oles Kanebckuu)

Prof Bullock hoped that extensive medical training in the regions would help doctors connect and root themselves in the community.

A 2018 university study of graduates from Monash’s medical program found that students who had regional jobs were more likely to get jobs in an area where they had studied for an extended duration or where they came from. .

Of a cohort of graduates working in one or other of Monash’s rural training regions, 40% had received schooling or training in the region in which they worked.

Professor Bullock said encouraging students to study medicine in the area where they grew up would be an important aspect of increasing doctor retention rates.

“Even at school we need to show the children of Gippsland that they can aspire to medicine, that they are as good as other students at getting into medicine,” he said.

More government support needed

Royal Australian College of GPs (RACGP) Rural Council chairman Michael Clements said more government support was needed to keep doctors in the regions.

“We also need to see other important fixes such as investment and, a pull factor – we need to reward doctors who make the decision to move regionally,” Dr Clements said.

Dr. Michael Clements with a blurred background of a lake and mountains
Dr. Michael Clements says medical students are less and less interested in majoring in general medicine.(Supplied: RACGP)

A recent Senate inquiry report into GP services in the Australia region said the committee was concerned that Medicare compensation, salary structures and reimbursements did not recognize the expertise of GPs. general practitioners.

The committee recommended that the federal government consider a substantial increase in Medicare reimbursements for all GP visits and incentive payments for GPs traveling to areas.

Last year, RACGP submitted a submission to the Department of Health for the 10-year primary healthcare plan, saying the government needed to create higher Medicare rebates to help GPs spend more time with their patients.

The Department of Health did not respond to a request for comment on measures included in the latest budget to keep doctors in the regions.

“There’s not much we can do from an academic education perspective,” Dr. Clements said.

“Having rural training areas within universities is important, and it’s part of the puzzle, but it has to be combined with our government, federal, and state investments.”

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