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Worrying signs of breakdown in national training commitment

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The country will remain heavily reliant on overseas-trained doctors to plug significant health service gaps unless the Federal Government revives a national focus on issues around medical workforce planning, the AMA has warned.

AMA President Professor Brian Owler has written to Federal Health Minister Sussan Ley urging her to put medical training and workforce on the agenda of the 6 November meeting of Federal, State and Territory health ministers amid worrying signs of a breakdown in national cooperation and coordination on the issue.

Professor Owler told Ms Ley that it appeared “increasingly likely” that the South Australian Government would renege on its guarantee, made as part of a national agreement struck in 2006, to fund sufficient intern training places to continue the education of medical graduates, the numbers of which are growing because of increased Commonwealth investment in medical school places.

He said that, on current projections, 22 South Australian medical graduates would miss out on a local internship in 2017, and up to 39 in 2018, forcing them to look interstate if they were to continue their training.

The situation is seen as part of a broader loss of focus on medical training and workforce planning, deepened by the Federal Government’s decision to abolish Health Workforce Australia and absorb its functions within the Health Department, and exacerbated by the slow pace of work in establishing the National Medical Training Advisory Network.

Professor Owler warned of potentially serious consequences if the period of policy drift was allowed to persist.   

“The Federal Government must show leadership on this issue.”

“With a growing lack of leadership, it appears that jurisdictions are increasingly making parochial decisions on medical workforce planning without regard for broader community need,” the AMA President said.

“In this regard…the South Australian Government appears to consider itself no longer bound by the commitments it has given at COAG [Council of Australian Governments], and holds the view that other states [and] territories can take up the slack in any event.

“If one jurisdiction is allowed to walk away from this fundamental COAG commitment, others may follow this lead.”

Australia is heavily reliant on overseas medical graduates to plug holes in the medical workforce, particularly in rural and regional areas, and Professor Owler said this would persist as long as governments failed to focus on training and planning issues.

He said it would be a waste of taxpayers’ increased investment in medical school places if governments failed to fund sufficient intern, prevocational and specialist places to complete their training.

“It is simply not acceptable for governments to ignore the growing supply of local graduates and the need to support them in progressing through the medical training pipeline to full specialist qualification,” Professor Owler said.

Adrian Rollins.