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Train doctors locally to stop shortages

Written by Will Ziebell

More rural training programs and clearer pathways to career development are needed to resolve Australia’s growing shortage of rural doctors, a recent study has shown.

The University of Melbourne’s Professor Anthony Scott, one of the authors of the study, said allowing medical students and recent graduates to complete most of their training in the country was showing positive results, despite an undersupply of country doctors.

“The shortage of rural doctors is due to a combination of factors; there are fewer doctors willing to work in rural areas, but also there are more health issues in those regions,” Scott said.

Prof Scott said while students from rural areas were more likely to return to the country after graduating than students from the city, rural training programs increased the likelihood a doctor would remain in the country regardless of their background.

“Often young doctors get trained by mentors in the city who encourage them to stay there because that’s where they are and they see it as the clearest path to career progression,” Prof Scott said.

The Australian Medical Association’s (AMA) rural policy director, Warwick Hough said the AMA had called for a combined approach to rural health policy for some time.

“From our perspective, the two most important aspects are that you come from a rural area and that you get to do your training in a rural area,” Mr Hough said.

He said the AMA wanted universities to increase their intake of rural students from a quarter of all available spots to one third, while ensuring most of their training could take place in the country.

“I think it’s widely acknowledged that one of the issues we have to solve is how you can provide a more complete training pathway in rural areas so that people can do most of their training in a rural location,” Mr Hough said.

“One of the issues you’ve got is that if people go back to the city and start to put down some roots there and no matter where they come from it’s very difficult to get them back working into a rural location.”

Monash University’s School of Rural Health researcher, Dr Belinda O’Sullivan, echoed Mr Hough’s statement about the need for more spaces in rural training spots to encourage doctors to stay in the country after graduating.

“What’s holding back more specialty work-force development in the country is the availability of training places,” Dr O’Sullivan said.

Dr O’Sullivan also said university courses that focused on rural training were proving effective and Monash University’s Extended Rural Cohort stream increased graduate doctors remaining in the country by up to 20%.

But, she cautioned that without enough workforce training for rural doctors who had already graduated, encouraging more to remain in the country long term would remain a challenge.

“If you want to keep people in the country beyond the internships you need more training pathways for them to pursue,” Dr O’Sullivan said.

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Will Ziebell