New rural-based medical program to address Australia’s rural doctor shortage

Monash medical students studying outside at Monash Rural Health Bendigo

Monash’s new rural end-to-end medical program welcomed its first students last month, marking a major collaborative push by a group of seven universities to immerse medical students in rurally-based training.

The rural end-to-end cohort is an initiative of the Federal Government under the collaborative Murray-Darling Medical Schools Network (MDMSN) initiative, aiming to address the shortage of doctors in rural and regional Australia.

The MDMSN – comprising of the University of New South Wales, University of Sydney, Charles Sturt University, University of Melbourne, La Trobe University and Monash University – have established five rurally-based graduate entry programs across the Murray-Darling region. Three of the five programs have taken their first students this year. By 2027, nearly 700 students are expected to be enrolled within these programs across the network.

According to Associate Professor Shane Bullock, Acting Head of Monash Rural Health, accreditation of all aspects of the program, funded by the Australian Government under the Murray-Darling Medical Schools Network, has been conferred by the Australian Medical Council until March 2024.

The inaugural cohort of 30 graduate entry students within the Monash rural end-to-end cohort start their four-year medical degree at the Monash Rural Health Churchill site in Gippsland. These students will be “completely immersed in rural medicine, study and life from the beginning of their first year through their clinical studies,” Associate Professor Bullock said.

“This enables and enhances opportunities for the majority of students in the cohort to undertake extended rural placements in the Murray-Darling region.”

A 2017 Monash study, led by Dr Belinda O’Sullivan, examined rural immersion programs in medical schools across Australia. The study found that students (from both rural and metropolitan backgrounds) who undertook immersion programs may be more likely to work rurally. Immersion programs lasting longer than two years and immersion in both regional hospitals and rural general practices both also increased the likelihood of a medical student remaining in a rural setting.

According to Associate Professor Bullock, the new end-to-end option is aimed at students already from rural regions “as well as giving metropolitan students a real opportunity to experience life in rural clinical practice,” he said.

After their first year in Gippsland, the Monash students in the MDMSN End-to-End rural cohort will spend the next 2.5 years of their three years of clinical training are completed in rural and regional hospitals and community-based practices across the Murray-Darling region in rural north-west Victoria. During their final clinical year, students can choose to undertake some training in metropolitan hospitals.

The 30 graduate-entry medical students enrolled in the MDMSN End-to-End rural cohort join the existing 30 direct entry medical students who spend at least 2.5 years of their 5-year degree at Monash Rural Health sites as part of the extended rural cohort. Collectively these 60 students will form the Monash rural cohort.

Regional training hubs, attached to medical schools, further strengthen the pipeline of rurally-based medical training. The hubs - such as the Gippsland and North West Victorian Regional Training Hubs - provide valuable career opportunities and support, enabling junior doctors to undertake their speciality training locally and remain in rural practice.

Times Higher Education spoke with Associate Professor Shane Bullock about the Murray-Darling Medical Schools Network and end-to-end rural medical training. Read the full article: Australia’s rural medical degrees seek to end exodus to cities.