News focus: Young aspiring doctors push to stay regional

The University of NSW Rural Clinical School allows students to undertake part of their medical degrees in Albury and other regional areas. Picture: MARK JESSER
The University of NSW Rural Clinical School allows students to undertake part of their medical degrees in Albury and other regional areas. Picture: MARK JESSER

Most young aspiring doctors have a story behind why they got into medicine.

But Jordan Vivian’s is particularly powerful.

The University of New South Wales student grew up in Singleton, about an hour northwest from Newcastle, and found barriers accessing the right support when faced with a health adversity.

“I developed an eating disorder and that led to consequent mental health issues,” she said.

“To get treatment we had to travel hours for appointments and my parents would have to give up half a day’s work, and when you’re already going through so much stress coping with the illness, that adds to it.

“We need to focus on making sure all Australians have equal access to health care.

PASSIONATE: Fourth-year University of NSW medical student Jordan Vivian is encouraging more of her peers to work regionally. She says more specialist training opportunities are needed. Picture: MARK JESSER

PASSIONATE: Fourth-year University of NSW medical student Jordan Vivian is encouraging more of her peers to work regionally. She says more specialist training opportunities are needed. Picture: MARK JESSER

“The whole experience made me realise without my family and the help I received from health professionals I might not be here today, and I want to give that assistance back.”

Ms Vivian, now in her fourth year, wants to work in Albury when she graduates.

“Everyone does their first and second year in Sydney, and in the third year there’s an option to go to a rural campus,” she said.

“I did enjoy my time in Sydney but found it became chaotic on top of studying, and I picked Albury.

“I’d never been there, but I was craving that community kinship and atmosphere, and to find that in Albury and such a supportive medical community was fantastic.”

Ms Vivian is passionate about attracting more of her peers to regional areas and has helped to secure Albury as the location for a nationwide student conference.

“In fourth year we do a research year, and many go back to Sydney – there’s only 11 students doing their research across the UNSW rural campuses out of a cohort of 200-odd,” she said.

“There are many opportunities for research in rural communities like Albury, however metropolitan areas are perceived as superior in this regard by many students.

“More come back in the fifth and sixth years for clinical placements.

“The big reason for holding this conference in Albury is to showcase the lifestyle and the opportunities.”

Giving students an experience of studying rurally increases their likelihood of practising there, research shows – the most recent published last month by Monash University.

But even if students like Ms Vivian are set on working regionally, they must follow opportunities to complete post-graduate training, up to 10 years long. 

“What we’re seeing is this big funnelling effect where you have a lot of students, and as you get into the workforce there’s only so many opportunities for specialty training to become a consultant,” she said

“A lot of these these opportunities are in the city, so by the time they’ve finished training they’ve settled down, they have a partner, and it becomes difficult to move.

“We need these more advanced training pathways and support for junior doctors in rural areas.”

It’s for this reason plans by Charles Sturt and La Trobe universities to establish a new medical school in the Murray Darling previously attracted criticism, with claims there would not be enough training opportunities for the number of graduates.

A medical school network announced in the federal budget instead incorporates existing schools, and has been met with positivity from some of those concerned with the previous proposal.

SUPPORT: UNSW Rural Clinical school campus manger Diana Potocnik and Meredith James, Border Medical Training Hub Manager help students find jobs.

SUPPORT: UNSW Rural Clinical school campus manger Diana Potocnik and Meredith James, Border Medical Training Hub Manager help students find jobs.

Federal Rural Health Minister Bridget McKenzie said the government would not be providing any new  Commonwealth-supported places for the network, as “we graduate enough medical students”.

“Twenty years ago we had 2.6 doctors for every thousand Australians, now we’re up to about 3.6 doctors for every thousand,” she said.

“But the range is about two doctors to every thousand in the regions and over four doctors for every thousand when you get to capital cities.

“There’s a mal-distribution, so it’s really important we address that.”

A federal government project established last year, 26 Regional Health Training Hubs, is working to strengthen the pathway from school to post-graduate training.

Border Medical Training Hub director Phillip Steele said it was a successful initiative, which could be further supported by the medical school network, and accreditation by specialist training colleges for positions at places like Albury Wodonga Health.

Rural Health Minister Bridget McKenzie with the Murray Darling school network representatives on Wednesday. Picture: JAMES WILTSHIRE

Rural Health Minister Bridget McKenzie with the Murray Darling school network representatives on Wednesday. Picture: JAMES WILTSHIRE

“The potential benefit of the network for people in this area is they could do their first couple years in Wagga without having to go to Sydney, and then come back to Albury-Wodonga for the remainder of their clinical time,” he said.

“If we can tie that into further post-graduate positions in local areas, and then follow that on with specialty training positions in various fields, then it means somebody could potentially do quite a bit of their medical training right up to specialty training within the region.”

Asked what support regional hospitals would receive to provide training opportunities, Ms McKenzie said the state governments needed to be “focusing on opening up and funding those training places”.

“We’re doing what we can, but the state governments really need to get on board so these young medical students can get out into the regions,” she said. “There is a $550 million investment in this budget into a stronger rural health workforce.

“We’re going to see 3000 doctors over 10 years as part of this initiative and 3000 more nurses and allied health professionals in the regions.”

The government will also fund 100 more vocational training places to support rural generalists from 2021 and reduce the amount of overseas doctors being admitted annually. 

The centre of Albury will become the scene of a medical emergency later this year as 300 students take part in a nationwide conference.

The Australian Medical Student’s Association’s Rural Health Summit is being held in Albury for the first time from September 28 to 30.

Co-convenor Jordan Vivian has led the push to bring the event to the Border.

“I’ve loved my time here in Albury so much I really wanted to showcase that,” she said.

“There’s 17,000 medical students across Australia and the invite is open to anyone to attend, and we’ve already had people as far from Fremantle and Toowoomba express interest in coming.

ONE COMMUNITY: Hundreds of medical students will converge on Albury later this year for the AMSA Rural Health Summit, a first for the area and hoped to attract participants to study and work regionally. Picture: MARK JESSER

ONE COMMUNITY: Hundreds of medical students will converge on Albury later this year for the AMSA Rural Health Summit, a first for the area and hoped to attract participants to study and work regionally. Picture: MARK JESSER

“We’re expecting about 300 people across Australia to come and we really want to provide an experience that allows them to embrace all the diverse opportunities they can pursue in a career in medicine here.

“We’ll be running a whole host of different skills workshops as well including life support, emergency obstetrics skills, and basic surgical skills, to give students something to take away something from the weekend.”

The “Rural Rescue Challenge” in QEII Square, where students will simulate an emergency, will be among the hands-on experiences.

Across the three days there will be a number of speakers including Border professionals Catherine Orr and Amanda Cohn, and Australia's first National Rural Health Commissioner Paul Worley.

Ms Vivian is also running a number of social events showcasing Albury’s lifestyle.

“You’re not going to work somewhere you don’t enjoy living – we want to show how fantastic living regionally is,” she said.

“I think there is a lack of awareness of what opportunities there are here. “If this conference means one student is inspired to study here, that will be a major win.”

Anyone interested in supporting the summit should contact jordan.vivian@amsa.org.au.