While the shortage of doctors in rural and remote areas is a global concern, it is getting special attention from Australia’s medical community. OUM, founded on the principle of bringing medical education to remote regions, is doing its part by expanding opportunities for rural rotations. 

HEEDING THE CALL: OUM students could impact shortage of doctors in rural Australia

The shortage of doctors in rural and remote areas is not unique to one country or region. It is a global problem that is not new. In fact, the creation of Oceania University of Medicine (OUM) stemmed from the need for more doctors in Samoa and other areas of the South Pacific, back in 2002.

OUM’s pre-clinical curriculum, delivered online during the program’s first two-and-a half years, provides an opportunity for more students to consider a medical career which had not been available to them in a traditional academic setting.

In Australia, even amidst the pandemic, the medical community has continued to draw attention to the services needed in rural communities. An Australian Institute of Health survey reported that just over 20 percent of people living in rural areas said they could not go to see a General Practitioner (GP) because there simply were not any nearby. And almost 60 percent said they had no access to specialists in their local area.

A promising future

But hope may be on the way. Study results reported by the Medical Deans Australia and New Zealand in late 2020* stated that nearly 35 percent of 2019 medical school graduates prefer to work somewhere other than in a capital city. Where those graduates trained, or even where they grew up, may be one of the markers which impacts that preference.

“It is a proven fact that students who are aligned to rural communities by birth or upbringing are more likely to return after medical training than metropolitan students who have simply rotated through the rural placements. This is why OUM ‘s flexible online delivery of the pre-clinical curriculum, allowing students to study in their local communities, and the subsequent emphasis on rural placement of students back into their home environment, has proven successful,” says Professor Hugh Bartholomeusz, OAM RFD, MBBS FRAC, OUM’s Deputy Vice Chancellor (Clinical) and Dean for Australia. He has been working to expand the network of rotation opportunities for OUM students in Australia, and he is keeping rural settings firmly in his sights.

“We know how incredible the clinical learning experience can be for medical students in the rural setting. The hands-on training opportunities and clinical exposure are remarkable, which is why we have built a strong network of rotation sites Australia wide, incorporating both metropolitan and rural communities, and we are continuing to seek additional relationships,” says Professor Bartholomeusz, also a retired forty-eight-year Air Force Reserve specialist clinician.

The University’s growing rotation network aligns with one of the Top 10 solutions for rural health care stated in the 2019 Australian Medical Association Rural Health Issues Survey: “Encourage medical colleges to include rotations for trainees to rural areas – subject to appropriate experience and supervision.”

Stellar opportunities

“Most of my rotations were in Country Victoria,” says Dr Edward Watkins, OUM Class of 2017. “The thing about the country is that it provides a lot more hands-on training than major hospitals in the city. I had more one-on-one experience with consultants and senior registrars, and a lot of extra learning opportunities available.” After completing rotations and doing postgraduate training in the rural setting, Dr Watkins is now an ICU Registrar at Monash in Melbourne.

Dr Thomas Dalton, who just graduated from OUM and is studying for his AMC 1 exam, says his years working as an educator in rural Queensland ultimately drew him to medical school. “When I was teaching and when I was in Defence (Dr Dalton is also a veteran), most of my time was spent in rural areas,” he says. “Working as a principal in small primary schools throughout NSW, I was involved with holistic support programs for special-needs students that included the welfare department, mental health support, students’ families, GPs, and paediatricians. Seeing the need for more doctors and services in those areas, I determined long before beginning medical school that I would take that path one day.” He has applied for internships in Queensland and South Australia.

Another veteran and graduate opted for a similar path.

“My plan has always been GP training because I like the country and I’m thinking of specialising in Geriatric Medicine,” says Dr Paul Jordan, Senior House Officer working toward general registration at Sun Coast University Hospital in Queensland and OUM Class of 2018. Before moving to Sunshine Coast, Dr. Jordan completed his internship in Launceston and hopes to be accepted into rural GP training my mid-2022.

“Since I was in the military for 17 years, I would also like to get involved in veteran health because there are many people living in those small rural communities who defended this country, and that service takes its toll. So, I want to give back to my mates who served with me and make sure they are all well looked after.”

*Source: Medical Schools Outcomes Database National Data Report 2020

(June 2021)