The rural doctor training path for medical students will be expanded

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Sydney-born doctor Ariah Steel treated a stroke patient, saw a baby born and worked in the emergency room – all in a week of GP training in a small country town.

Dr Steel was part of a pilot training program with the Murrumbidgee Local Health District (MLHD) in southern New South Wales.

Under this scheme, trainee GPs work in public hospitals, as well as private clinics, and are paid by a single employer; the MLHD.

“You can look after a whole community because you’re not just working in the GP clinic, you come to the hospital, you look after people in so many different ways,” Dr Steel said.

Dr Steel said that unlike other training paths, this model also includes salary and time off.

She said many of her peers who were trained as GPs had their pay cut when they joined the clinics because they were working for free.

“You get paid based on the patients you see, and the pay isn’t very high,” she said.

“Working under this new model, I get paid, I get annual leave, maternity leave, I get a holiday charge and I get my overtime, which is great.”

Alam Yoosuff says around two-thirds of GP clinics in Murrumbidgee are not taking new patients.(ABC Riverina: Romy Stephens)

Finley’s doctor and director of primary health at MLHD, Alam Yoosuff, said the model made it more attractive for students to train as general practitioners.

Dr Yoosuff said around 16 per cent of the 3,000 medical students across Australia were practicing general medicine, up from nearly 40 per cent seven years ago.

“We need people to provide holistic care in a generalist way, to provide elderly care, emergency services, inpatients as well as community generalists,” he said.

“This is the model that will offer the best value for money.”

Capacity Building in Small Towns

Woman kneels patting two kelpie dogs
Ariah Steel plans to continue living and working as a doctor in rural Australia.(ABC Riverina: Romy Stephens)

After completing a year of his GP training at Wagga Wagga, Dr Steel moved to Deniliquin in South Riverina.

“I think Deniliquin is a really special place and I feel so supported,” she said.

“I’m so lucky because I can work independently, which is great for learning, but if I need help, it’s just a phone call away.”

She was a welcome addition to a community that has felt the impact of health worker shortages.

Beds were closed at Deniliquin Hospital during COVID-19 due to a lack of staff and in July pregnant women were told that no midwives would be available at the hospital on weekends .

Pam Ellerman, a member of the United Hospital Auxiliaries of NSW and Deniliquin health advocate, welcomed the move to attract more doctors to the area.

A woman in a cream sweater stands near a tree
Pam Ellerman says the shortage of medical professionals means people are traveling to big cities for treatment.

“Deniliquin ran out of doctors and it was very difficult for someone to get to this town, almost impossible to get on a list of GPs,” Ms Ellerman said.

“So if you can’t take any more patients, people go straight to the accident and the emergency room.”

A model for other regions

The NSW Regional Health Inquiry has recommended expanding the MLHD model, but it needs the cooperation of the Federal Government, which is responsible for funding general practice.

In a statement, the office of Federal Health Minister Mark Butler said the government planned to expand trials of single-employer models for GPs, with selected organizations and regions next year.

A woman smiling at the camera
Bronnie Taylor wants the training model expanded.(ABC Riverina: Romy Stephens)

NSW Regional Health Minister Bronnie Taylor has called for the model to be rolled out across her state.

“We know it works, we know it keeps GPs in our communities, we know it allows them to get that rural GP training, which is what we need,” she said.

“We know that when we can work with the federal government, we can potentially achieve very good results.

“We did it in NSW – support us and let us roll it out!”

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