3 July 2017

Push for new rural medical school gathers pace

Education Rural

The proposed Murray-Darling Medical School is hanging its hopes on an affirmative action plan for rural students and fresh signs that policymakers are serious about fixing medical workforce problems in the bush.

The school’s foundation dean Professor John Dwyer told The Medical Republic he had spent the past seven years talking to country GPs and communities and studying the problems of small towns retaining doctors.

“The evidence from our point of view is overwhelming,” he said.

“Health outcomes for rural Australians are not as good as they are for their city cousins.

“And 15 years of different policies trying to get more Australian-trained doctors to work in the bush have not been successful.”

Crucially, the venture would not add to the already high numbers of medical students, but would rely on a redistribution of some 180 rural-oriented students from the quotas already allotted to existing schools.

“With our hopes resurrected politically we have been putting forward the evidence,” Professor Dwyer said.

“It became clear during our research that any time you take a kid from the country at any stage during their medical education – so they’ve got to spend years in a major city – the attrition rate in terms of returning to the country is very high.

“It became obvious, we need to create a system in Australia where people from the country, who are happy living in the country, cannot just go to medical school in the country, but do their internship and vocational training in the country as well.

“We see the Murray Darling Medical School – with its unique emphasis on an affirmative action program to get country kids into medical school –  as step one in an evolution in medical education in the country.”

The federal government has commissioned a report from independent consultants Ernst and Young to assess the plan by Charles Sturt University and La Trobe University to open the new school at three campuses.

The three locations are Bendigo in Victoria, and Wagga Wagga and Orange in NSW, the latter being home to some 130 specialists.

Professor Dwyer said James Cook University in northern Queensland had proven the value of an all-rural medical education from undergraduate to post-vocational training, in attracting and retaining doctors to work as rural GPs.

Charles Sturt’s existing position as a centre of education for other health disciplines had added to the case for the Murray-Darling Medical School to focus on medical team work needed in country practice.

The Medical Republic has been told that some prominent National Party figures are pushing the bid, but key ministers remain cautious.

The Ernst and Young report is expected to be delivered within a month.