The shortage of rural doctors is a long-standing issue for regional communities. La Trobe University has proposed to address this matter with the Murray-Darling Medical School (MDMS), a $54 million program to open new medical schools in Orange and Wagga Wagga, and replace the current medical school in Bendigo.
As medical students currently living and studying in Bendigo we agree that there is a need to increase the number of rural doctors.
However, we do not believe that the MDMS will solve the rural doctor shortage as it fails to target the root of the problem.
The barrier in getting doctors to rural areas is not a shortage of medical graduates but a shortage of downstream training pathways to draw experienced clinicians to rural towns.
In order to become a qualified doctor, you must graduate medical school and complete an internship year working in a hospital followed by at least 3 years of postgraduate training in a specialist area, e.g. emergency medicine.
However, these specialist training programs are located almost exclusively in the city.
This means that young doctors who might otherwise stay rural are currently forced to move to the city.
Doctors usually begin their specialist training at a time in their life when they are settling down and starting a family, making it very difficult to then move back to the country once they have finished their qualification. What is needed is to increase training positions in rural communities to enable young doctors to train and then stay in rural communities through their professional career.
There are already four medical schools whose students currently complete up to 3 years of their degree in Bendigo and other areas in rural and regional Victoria, giving them a taste for rural medicine to inspire them to return to the country for internship position.
These students are often from rural backgrounds and go on to intern in rural hospitals. However, they still have to move to the city to complete their specialist training.
The large number of students already studying rurally hasn’t improved the shortage of GPs and specialists in rural areas and there is no evidence that adding more rural medical graduates will help.
If the goal is to increase the numbers of GPs and specialists in rural areas, $54million could be better spent. Young doctors like us who are interested in rural practice should be given the opportunity live and work in rural areas throughout their specialist training.
This would allow them to develop community connections in their rural medical school training that could be continued through the remainder of their careers as interns, specialist trainees and finally qualified consultants.
The MDMS therefore misses the mark, and rural Australians deserve to have their taxpayer dollars spent on a program that will create real, immediate benefits to their communities.
Kitty Robertson is a 2nd year post graduate Melbourne University Medical Student.
Amy Vaux is a 3rd year undergraduate Monash University Medical student who is returning to Bendigo again in the second half of her studies next year.