IF you thought the case to train more rural doctors to increase access to healthcare in the bush was a cut and dried, you need to think again.
The medical fraternity and metropolitan universities have ramped up their campaign against a joint venture from LaTrobe and Charles Sturt University’s to establish a medical school with facilities to train 180 students across the Murray Darling Basin.
The Murray Darling Medical School promises to train and retain doctors to address the healthcare shortfall in the bush (see below).
The project is supported by the Nationals and could serve as the first big initiative under the Coalition’s National Rural Generalist Pathway policy which was designed to tackle the doctor shortage.
But last week Medical Deans of Australia and New Zealand chief executive Carmel Tebbutt said while poorer regional health outcomes are unacceptable, the 18 rural medical schools (most of which are run out of metropolitan universities) are sufficient. She encouraged government to ignore the Murray Darling Medical School and focus on increasing specialist training in the bush.
“Given the achievements of the rural clinical schools, the far more important issue now is to provide vocational specialty training in rural and regional areas, to enable medical graduates to remain in these locations,” Ms Tebbutt said.
This week Sydney University took out full page advertisements in local newspapers in the Calare electorate of Central West NSW’s MP Andrew Gee, who has been a vocal advocate for the Murray Darling Medical School.
Head of the Sydney University’s School of Rural Health, Associate Professor Mark Arnold, wrote the open letter featured in the advertisement that said the “well-intentioned proposal to create yet another medical school will not solve the rural doctor shortage”.
Mr Gee told parliament earlier this year that Sydney University had taken “unnecessarily predatory and negative approach” in opposing the Murray Darling Medical School.
Assistant Minister for Rural Health David Gillespie said last week, when he announced new laws to establish a Rural Health Commissioner to federal parliament, that regional Australians can find it “difficult, if not impossible” to access adequate healthcare services.
But before any funding decisions for new medical schools are announced, government must wait to see two medical industry reports which wait in the wings.
Mr Gillespie commissioned a review of the healthcare workforce and funding distribution. Also underway is a government-commissioned review of the Murray Darling Medical School proposal. Both are expected to report by August.
The universities behind the rural medical school plan say the current metropolitan based training, with rural placements for portions of the course, had failed and argue that rural placement from go-to-whoa would boost doctor retention rates in the bush.
A report from PPB Advisory, commissioned by the universities, said the Murray Darling Medical School would deliver doctors working in rural areas up to five times more efficiently than metropolitan schools.
It was modelled on the successful James Cook University in Far North Queensland. The report projected the Murray Darling school would achieve a retention rate of 50 per cent, while metropolitan schools achieve about 12 per cent.
PPB found the rural training facility would not eat into demand for metropolitan school students, given the projected population increase in major cities.
“(I)t is expected that the growth rate in clinical training capacity in major cities will allow metropolitan medical schools to easily offset any potential loss of clinical placements in regional and remote areas with metropolitan placements,” the report said.
Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce all but endorsed the initiative at a recent press conference on 1 June.
“I think this is a great proposal and we are going through the process and the investigation of how it would be set up,” Mr Joyce said.
Charles Sturt University director of government and community relations Peter Fraser said the Murray Darling Medical School would service all three southern Basin states.
“While campuses are based in Orange, Wagga Wagga and Bendigo, there will be 16 satellite sites across the basin footprint which will enable hands-on training for communities in far-western NSW, southern Victoria and north-eastern South Australia,” Mr Fraser said.