COMMENT: Medical school funding is no fix to rural doctor shortage

NO REAL SOLUTION: Joel Selby of the Australian Medical Students Association has some criticisms of the medical school funding announced in this week's Federal Budget. Photo: FILE PHOTO
NO REAL SOLUTION: Joel Selby of the Australian Medical Students Association has some criticisms of the medical school funding announced in this week's Federal Budget. Photo: FILE PHOTO

The proposal from Charles Sturt and La Trobe universities to open a stand-alone new medical school in the Murray-Darling region has failed to attract funding for the past five years because it simply could not possibly solve the issue of the rural doctor shortage.

It’s true that we need more doctors in the country, but more medical students is not the answer.

Medical students, like myself, currently study in Orange, Wagga Wagga, Bathurst and Bendigo, and if we want to remain in the country after finishing our degree, we need to be able to train and work rurally after medical school.

As of Budget night, the Murray-Darling Medical School proposal has been re-branded into the Murray-Darling Medical Network.

This is a double-edged sword.

Thankfully, the Federal government has seen sense and has committed to investing in the rural clinical schools which already operate in the Murray-Darling Basin, staffed by local doctors and educators who are absolutely dedicated to addressing the needs of their communities.

However, an unknown amount of the $94.5 million has been earmarked for Charles Sturt University to open a small medical school in Orange, in what appears to be a concession to the Nationals, rather than a considered solution to the doctor distribution problem. 

The Australian Medical Association and other professional bodies are in agreement that new medical student places cannot, and will, not fix the rural doctor shortage.

Joel Selby

Orange already hosts medical students from the University of Sydney. This funding move represents a waste of money in trying to recreate an existing successful rural clinical school.

Despite the government’s claim that no new Commonwealth-supported places will be added, it is estimated that there will be an increase of up to 60 full-fee paying international students across the board.

This comes at a time of a national flood of graduates and shortage of post-graduate training positions.

More medical students cannot fix the problems our rural communities face in accessing medical care, because graduating from medical school is not enough to qualify someone to work as an independent doctor.

In order to become a general practitioner or rural generalist, which our rural communities desperately need, a young graduate must complete five to 10 years of post-graduate training after medical school.

This is known as the ‘training pipeline’. At the moment the pipeline is blocked, with more graduates than training positions available at every level.

The first hurdle is gaining a rural internship position, this is a job medical graduates hold for the first year after graduating. At the moment, medical students and young doctors already want to move to rural areas for their internship, but due to the oversupply of students and shortage of positions, they need to move to the city.

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Students starting in this new medical school will only be qualified to work as specialists in 10 to 15 years, unlike the thousands of junior doctors who have already graduated, who are looking for training positions, and would love to work in the country - if only there were the opportunities.

Federal funding would have been better spent on fixing the training pipeline to ensure that doctors are actually able train, work, and settle in the country.

The Australian Medical Association and other professional bodies are in agreement that new medical student places cannot, and will, not fix the rural doctor shortage.

Unless the pipeline is fixed first, pumping more students through will only result in a class of graduates without the training positions to practice medicine, and a medical degree without post-graduate training will not be worth the paper it’s written on.

Joel Selby is a final-year medical student at the School of Rural Health and is the public relations officer at the Australian Medical Students Association

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