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Bonds loosened on rural doctors

Bonds loosened on rural doctors - Featured Image

The Federal Government has relaxed the rules surrounding return of service obligations on doctors working in bonded placements, in a decision hailed by AMA President Dr Michael Gannon as a victory for common sense.

Health Minister Sussan Ley has responded to representations from the AMA by directing the Health Department to take a more flexible approach when applying return of service obligations on medical graduates enrolled in the Bonded Medical Places (BMP) program and the Medical Rural Bonded Scholarship Scheme (MRBS).

The move means that BMP and MRBS doctors will no longer be prevented from travelling to metropolitan areas for extra training or instruction.

Dr Gannon said the policy shift addressed a damaging and unintended consequence of the obligation rules.

“The Department was previously bound by rigid guidelines to applying these return of service obligations, often leading to outcomes that made little sense,” the AMA President said. “Doctors who clearly were committed to their rural patients and more than meeting their obligations found that they were being essentially blocked from undertaking extra training or keeping up their clinical skills, simply because they would have to go to a city for a brief period to do so.”

Under the original terms of the BMP program, doctors were required to complete a period of eligible service in a rural area or district of workforce shortage equivalent to the length of their medical degree. MRBS graduates were required to complete at least six years eligible service in a rural area.

Related: National rural generalist program key to retention

Former AMA President, Professor Brian Owler, wrote to the Government last year highlighting that the rigid application of return of service obligations was having an unfair effect on participants who were trying to meet these obligations, particularly when they needed to undertake up-skilling and further training in a metropolitan area.

The AMA Council of Rural Doctors has previously identified the importance of rural doctors being able to access opportunities to up-skill in metropolitan centres from time to time.

The Council said such opportunities were vital to support sustainable, high quality, medical care and enable practitioners to share skills and knowledge with their rural colleagues, including doctors in training.

Dr Gannon said return of service arrangements were never intended to be an impediment to this, and the new, more flexible approach taken to their application was an important piece in the puzzle for supporting high quality rural health services.

Under the new policy approach, Health Department officials will have greater scope to approve requests by participants to undertake work in a broader range of areas, provided they are otherwise meeting their return of service obligations.

Dr Gannon urged a sensible approach to the more flexible arrangement.

“It is important that the Department of Health takes a practical approach when it applies the new policy so that it supports doctors who are committed to working in areas of workforce shortage,” he said.

“By taking steps that support a good working experience, this will encourage them to commit to long term practice in these areas – for the benefit of local communities.”

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