IT’S been a wicked challenge that has bedevilled policy makers, educators and communities for more than 40 years. How do we ensure rural and regional Australians benefit from what most city people take for granted – reasonable access to the advice and expertise of a local doctor? Despite the best of intentions and a variety of approaches, the reality is not enough of the doctors leaving our universities are planning on a career outside our capital cities. In Victoria, latest data shows there are 409 clinicians for every 100,000 people in Melbourne, but beyond the tram tracks it can be as low as 150 in some areas.
One part of the solution has been to enrol students who already live in rural communities, but until now the education process has been largely city-based, so potential doctors risk losing their connections and often stay in the city to practice. In one study, more than 55 per cent of rural kids wanted to work rurally when they started at a city medical school, but that reduced to fewer than 10 per cent by the end of their study.
As our state grows, so too is our regional population. We simply can't meet the health needs of one-third of our population with only 10 per cent of our graduates.
It’s a challenge that La Trobe University and the University of Melbourne have long sought to tackle, but a wicked problem needs a different approach. So we’ve joined forces like never before, coming up with a unique solution that hinges on partnership and innovation and plays to our collective strengths in regional Victoria.
The federal budget has this week funded our plan, which works like this – a new undergraduate degree will commence in Bendigo and Albury-Wodonga and be taught by La Trobe, and will feed a postgraduate MD program at Shepparton taught by the University of Melbourne. Both courses will take high-quality students who must come from a rural background – the curriculum will deliberately prepare students for a medical career in regional Australia and their placements will be based in the regions. It’s the only program in Victoria where students will do all their training in rural and regional areas – from the first lecture of their undergraduate degree to the final clinical placement of their MD, every class will be taught in the regions. The first intake in the new Rural MD program in Shepparton will enrol 30 students, and we hope to increase numbers in future years.
There is no other education model in Australia where two universities so closely align on a community challenge, and it makes perfect sense. The University of Melbourne has long been a trusted educator of medical practitioners, and La Trobe already educates a wide range of allied health professionals and has an established network in regional communities. The partnership makes good use of our infrastructure and health connections. Rural research and inter-professional learning connections will be strengthened. This program is a great shot in the arm for regional people and a vote of confidence in these booming communities. It will build capacity, confidence and self-reliance and should trigger additional investment in services and infrastructure.
Together we are confident we can make a lasting difference to the communities we serve. Most importantly, we can improve health outcomes. More local doctors can mean reduced mortality rates, shorter waiting times, less travel to see your doctor and faster treatments for you and your family. We can all be proud of that outcome.