More doctors for Northern Rivers is good medicine

COUNTRY PRACTICE: Attracting and retaining more doctors to rural areas is the aim behind Lismore being named one of 26 rural areas to benefit from a Federal Government program.
COUNTRY PRACTICE: Attracting and retaining more doctors to rural areas is the aim behind Lismore being named one of 26 rural areas to benefit from a Federal Government program. Supplied

ATTRACTING and retaining more doctors to rural areas is the aim behind Lismore being named one of 26 rural areas to benefit from a Federal Government program.

The University of Sydney's University Centre for Rural Health in Lismore has won federal funding to establish a Rural Training Hub to boost rurally-based training and career pathways for trainee doctors and lift doctor numbers in the north coast region.

It's a hot topic, as in Ballina last month, a conference attracted 30 general practitioner supervisors from across the Northern Rivers, including Ballina, Coffs Harbour, Murwillumbah and Casino, at an intensive professional development workshop to better learn how to mentor a new cohort of GP registrars whom have recently commenced their GP training in the North Coast region.

Associate Professor Primary Health Care Research, Megan Passey said the new funding is part of a wider package of 26 newly funded Rural Training Hubs

Federal Assistant Minister for Rural Health, Dr David Gillespie said the Rural Training Hubs are the first instalment of the government's three-part Integrated Rural Pipeline intended to attract and retain medical graduates in rural areas by better supporting the postgraduate training of junior doctors who want to become general practitioners and specialists.

The other components of the program are the Rural Junior Doctor Training Innovation Fund to foster new ways of training rural interns, and an expansion of the Rural Specialist Training Program, which is funding 100 new training places in rural areas - 50 in 2017 and another 50 in 2018.

Deputy Director University Centre for Rural Health, Dr Michael Douglas, welcomed the new funding, saying:

"This new grant recognises the foresight of the Northern NSW Local Health District and the calibre of our local specialists. 

"The partnership between the Northern NSW Local Health District and the University of Sydney will help build the future specialist medical workforce for the region.

"It provides us with confidence that we can continue to meet the needs of our community for many years to come.

"This new initiative gives us a greater opportunity for medical students and trainee doctors to commit to working in our regions for the long term.”

The University Centre for Rural Health has been a presence in the region since 2001, training students in the disciplines of allied health, pharmacy, nursing, dentistry and medicine. 

It has campuses in Lismore, Grafton, Murwillumbah and Ballina.

Dean of Sydney Medical School, Professor Arthur Conigrave welcomed the new funding, saying:

"The University of Sydney has been a consistent advocate for the federal funding of postgraduate training in rural and regional hubs and is encouraged by the government's commitment to implement the Integrated Rural Training Program.

"This will be a joint effort between the University of Sydney's three Schools and Centres for Rural Health, Local Health Districts, The Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and specialist colleges.

"Sydney Medical School has delivered rural medical education for more than two decades, and by the end of 2017 almost 1,000 Sydney students will have had a substantial rural experience. Currently one-third of all students in the Sydney Medical Program undertake an extended rural placement.”

Evidence shows that students who complete extended rural placements are more likely to seek a career in a rural area than either students who have not had such placements, or students who have a rural origin.

Ninety per cent of University of Sydney medical graduates who had completed an extended rural placement report that the experience had increased their interest in pursuing a medical career in rural or regional Australia.

Converting these students' positive intentions to become fully qualified rural doctors is a process of at least six to eight years of supervised vocational practice after graduation.

The most important factor in ensuring that rural medical workforce needs are met and sustained is the availability of a comprehensive and adequately supported rural training 'pipeline'," said Professor Conigrave.

"This must enable students interested in a rural career not only to obtain intern and residency posts, but also to progress through postgraduate specialty training, including rural generalist training, in appropriate rural and regional centres.”

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