The Rural Doctors Association of Australia has applauded the budget commitment of $62.2 million to have rural generalism recognised as a sub-speciality of general practice.
CEO Peta Rutherford said the investment in a national rural generalist pathway, which Labor has promised to honour should it win government, will smooth the way for young doctors who want to train and work in the country.
“There’s a number of challenges for doctors who want to be rural generalists,” she told The Medical Republic. “They have to negotiate their positions at individual hospitals, for advanced skills posts to do, say, 12 months in obstetrics or anaesthetics or mental health.
“So there’s money in this budget to create support and coordination teams who will do all that work for them. It’ll streamline the pathway, make it easier and remove the unnecessary barriers that can actually deter young doctors from a rural career.”
She said the program should help deliver more Australian-trained graduates into rural and remote communities, with advanced skills appropriate to the needs of the community.
“For a town with a hospital that has a maternity service, you’d be looking for those rural generalists to have obstetrics and anaesthetics skills. Another big one is that for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, we’d want rural generalists to have advanced skills in ATSI health.”
Ms Rutherford said the planned reduction in overseas-trained doctors – 155 fewer over four years, saving nearly $300 million – and recent visa changes requiring overseas doctors to work rurally, should help better distribute the workforce.
“As we understand it, we are graduating a sufficient number of medical students to meet the needs of the Australian public,” she said. “What we do have an issue with is how they are distributed. We should not need to rely on overseas-trained doctors, particularly in our city areas.
“We’re not anticipating any significant impact in rural communities, and we’ve certainly warned the government that we’ll be monitoring that closely. We’re still very reliant in many of our communities on overseas-trained doctors, and we certainly don’t want to jeopardise that.
“Many communities would not have had a medical service without overseas doctors. So we’re very appreciative and we certainly can’t consider any reduction in numbers until the new programs start to take effect, which will be six to seven years.”
Ms Rutherford said Labor’s cancer package would be much appreciated in remote areas, where patients often have travel, accommodation, childcare and farm responsibilities to worry about, on top of high fees for treatment.
She also welcomed recent changes to the way Districts of Workforce Shortage are defined, which will now be not purely about numbers but also take into account specific local needs, such as obstetrics.
“It’s a lot more complex than a pure numbers assessment to determine whether a town has a sufficient number of doctors.”
The RACGP’s Harry Nespolon and the AMA’s Tony Bartone also welcomed the rural generalist pathway commitment.
“The rural workforce programs is another piece of good news,” Dr Bartone said. “We need to increase the supply of doctors to rural and regional Australia, to serve the community where access is patchy and difficult at best.”
Dr Nespolon said he hoped that “over time it can develop into a program that really does deliver the right skills for communities in rural areas as well as a really fulfilling career for doctors.”