The study, published online in The Medical Journal of Australia, contradicts the traditional belief that only country-bred medical students would head to the bush in significant numbers to practise medicine.
Winthrop Professor Geoff Riley AM, head of the RCSWA and of The University of Western Australia’s School of Primary, Aboriginal and Rural Health Care (SPARHC), said the study was proof that a Federal Government initiative to develop the rural clinical school program across Australian medical schools was working. He said the program was arguably the most important evidence-based intervention in place to address rural medical workforce shortages and the uneven urban-rural distribution of doctors.
The RCSWA followed 1017 doctors who were in their fifth year of training at the UWA Medical School between 2002 and 2009 to see where they were working in 2013. A quarter of those doctors had spent that fifth year in a rural centre with the RCSWA. Of those, 16 per cent went on to work in the country compared with only five per cent of those who did all their training in the city.
“The main result from this study is that after training in a country location for a year with the RCSWA as medical students, many more new doctors are entering the rural medical workforce,” Professor Riley said.
A key change was the rise in students from an urban background deciding to work in the country – now almost equivalent to those from a rural background returning to the country to work. “We have known for a long time that students from a rural background are at least three times more likely to go back to the bush as those from an urban background,” Professor Riley said.
However, the study revealed that after RCS training, 15 per cent of the city-bred doctors decided to work in the country – almost as many as the 21 per cent of rural-background students who undertook the RCS training and then opted to work in the bush.
“So it seems that the RCSWA is ‘converting’ urban background students into the equivalent of rural background students,” Professor Riley said.
He said the results vindicated the Government’s move to develop the rural clinical school program to attract more doctors to rural practice. “This research provides strong support for Governments to continue to invest in Rural Clinical Schools across Australia to continue and expand these programs,” he said.
He said it remained very important to continue to enrol rural background students into medical schools. “However, that source of students is finite, and we can now be reassured that we have an intervention that enables us to recruit from the much larger urban pool of students, confident in the knowledge that the RCS experience makes them much more likely to enter rural practice.”
Vice-Chancellor of The University of Western Australia, Professor Paul Johnson, said UWA’s Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences was proud of the role it had played over half a century in contributing to the well-being of rural and remote communities.
*The RCSWA was established in 2002 within UWA’s Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences with Australian Government funding. It is a workforce initiative designed to improve recruitment and retention in rural practice. Senior medical students spend their penultimate academic year in a rural town. After starting with seven students in four towns, in 2014 the RSCWA has 83 students based across 14 sites throughout WA.
Winthrop Professor Geoff Riley (Head, Rural Clinical School of WA) (+61 8) 9842 0820
Winthrop Professor Ian Puddey (Dean, Faculty of Medicine Dentistry and Health Sciences)
(+61 8) 6488 8551 (Betty Hart – PA)
Professor Gavin Frost (Dean, School of Medicine UNDA Fremantle) (+61 8) 9433 0209
David Stacey (UWA Public Affairs) (+61 8) 6488 3229 / (+61 4) 32 637 716