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Imbalance in supply of rural doctors continues

The Australian Medical Students’ Association (AMSA) has expressed its concerned by the recent Government announcement it will support 50 medical student places to open a new medical school at the Sunshine Coast University Hospital.  

AMSA has called for increased funding of long-term regional specialty training places, rather than the establishment of new medical schools to address the current medical workforce mal-distribution.

The Government’s announcement comes with no detail as to how exactly these places are to come about, but it is believed there will be no further increases to the number of Commonwealth Supported Places (CSPs). It is AMSA’s understanding that support for the new medical school bypassed regular departmental approval processes.

AMSA President and local Sunshine Coast medical student Rob Thomas said: “With Government modelling forecasting an oversupply of 7,000 doctors by 2030, AMSA also believes that it would be irresponsible for the places on the Sunshine Coast to come from new international places.

“The reasoning behind the announcement was that the new medical school at the Sunshine Coast will address local workforce shortages. However, according to the Government’s own modelling, the Sunshine Coast is not in workforce shortage or a regional area. Internships on the Sunshine Coast continue to be oversubscribed.

“This is a solution in search of a problem. The real problem that we face is the disparity in the distribution of doctors between metropolitan and rural and regional areas. A key reason why this disparity exists is that those interested in becoming doctors in rural areas are forced back to the city for most, if not all, of their training.”

Jenna Mewburn, AMSA Rural Health Co-Chair and a final year medical student studying in Wagga Wagga said: “I’m a rural background student who wants to live and work rurally in the future, but at present I will likely have to return to the city to pursue specialty training.

“This will likely fall at a time where I’m looking to lay down roots, making it increasingly difficult to return rurally in the future. Initiatives throughout medical school already exist, including rural origin entry quotas and rural clinical school placements.  While there is evidence to support the success of these programs in contributing to the rural workforce, what we need is more quality specialty training places to be funded nationwide.”

AMSA, in conjunction with its Rural Health Committee will continue to advocate for increased speciality training places as a more effective alternative to new medical schools.

The announcement comes at a time when the Federal Government has announced a new decentralisation push, requiring all Ministers to justify whether agencies within their portfolios should remain in the big cities.  All Federal Ministers will be required to report by August to Cabinet, detailing which of their departments, entities or functions are suitable for relocation to a regional area.

The Australian Medical Association in its recent submission Assessing the distribution of medical school places in Australia to the Department of Health, highlighted that redistributing medical school places, on its own, will not improve workforce shortages. 

Further, the AMA believes that the Government needs to take a longer-term view and recognise that unless additional postgraduate training places in rural areas and undersupplied specialties are made available, addressing workforce shortages in these areas will remain an elusive goal.

The AMA remains committed to supporting doctors in ways to address the imbalance in the medical workforce supply, particularly in regional and remote Australia, especially as it is a contributing factor to the lower health status and life expectancy for people living in these areas.

Meredith Horne