A new solution to rural doctor shortage

It’s been a wicked challenge that has bedevilled policy makers, educators and communities for more than 40 years.

How do we ensure that 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 over the decades, the unfortunate reality is that 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 is largely city-based, so potential doctors risk losing their rural connections and often end up staying 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, our regional population is growing as well, and we simply can't meet the health needs of one third of our State’s population with only 10 per cent of our medical 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 Australian 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. This is a formula for how we can best ensure more doctors for the bush.

It’s a unique approach, and 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 so that we can meet rural Victoria’s medical workforce needs as the population grows.

There is no other education model in Australia where two universities so closely align on a common community challenge, and it makes perfect sense. The University of Melbourne has long been a trusted and respected educator of medical practitioners, and La Trobe already educates a wide range of allied health professionals in a rural setting, and has an established network in regional Victorian communities.

The partnership makes good use of our infrastructure and health network connections, and rural research and inter-professional learning connections will also be strengthened. It has also required vision and foresight from the University of Melbourne, who in agreeing to reallocate medical places from their city campus to Shepparton, have demonstrated very clearly the way that universities care deeply about the communities that they serve.

This announcement expands on the already significant presence of the University of Melbourne in delivering high quality medical education in rural Victoria. The University has run a Rural Clinical School program at Shepparton for many years and this partnership will further enhance the student offering in a rural setting.

This program is a great shot in the arm for regional people and a vote of confidence in these already-booming communities. It will build capacity, confidence and self-reliance, and should trigger additional investment in medical services and infrastructure.

Together we are confident that we can make a positive and lasting difference to the communities we serve.

Most importantly, we can improve health outcomes for people living in rural and regional Victoria.

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.