Rural communities across New South Wales are making a significant contribution to the training of the next generation of rural doctors. Local primary and secondary health services, together with shire councils and the wider community, have enthusiastically adopted senior medical students in the University of Wollongong’s year-long rural clinical immersion program, and are proud to be part of a program which they believe will provide graduates who will eventually come back to work in the local community.
As is well known, Australia’s unique geography and population distribution creates many challenges to the equitable delivery of healthcare services. With the majority of the population clustered in and around capital cities and the coastline, people living in the sparsely populated interior have poorer access to services and frequently have to travel long distances to access even primary health services, let alone more specialised services. Add to this the unique health and social issues found in remote and rural populations, such as the health needs of Indigenous communities, farm safety, social isolation, natural disasters and poorer access to fresh foods, it is little wonder that the rates of chronic disease, smoking, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide are higher in remote and rural settings.
The medical program at the University of Wollongong is one of the new regional medical schools developed by the Australian Government to place more emphasis on rural medical education. Based in a regional setting, but with ten rural ‘hubs’ scattered across New South Wales stretching from the Northern Rivers to the South Coast and as far west as Broken Hill, it has a strong commitment to rural medical education. The program is now achieving its founding mission to:
“…produce excellent medical practitioners… who have the capacity and desire to contribute to the enhancement of health care for patients in all geographic settings, but particularly in regional, rural and remote communities”.
All of its senior medical students are required to undertake a year-long clinical training program integrated across community health services and hospitals, and two-thirds of them do so in a rural setting – a feature which is unique in Australia and done by only a handful of medical schools worldwide. It provides outstanding pastoral support to its students throughout the four years of the program.
Over the past seven years, the University has admitted an average of 68 per cent of its domestic medical students from a rural background. There has been a gratifying increase in the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students with five due to graduate in 2017. Its graduates have a strong sense of social accountability, and are not deterred by perceived hardships of rural practice. The latest survey of students on graduation showed that 69 per cent would like to practise outside major cities, and 61 per cent intend to choose a general practice or generalist specialist career path. The majority of students on graduation were satisfied with the training that they received, and this is borne out by information from the NSW Junior Medical Officer Census data which shows that 78 per cent of University of Wollongong graduates felt well prepared for internship – significantly higher than graduates from other medical schools.
The University of Wollongong has a strong commitment to redressing the health inequities currently in existence, and is confident that its graduates are stepping up to the mark.
The University of Wollongong was a sponsor of the 14th National Rural Health Conference.