Two GPs, a female and male, stand in a doctors' office, examining a section of spine skeleton. Photo: Paul Jones

UOW graduate doctors more likely to live and work in rural areas

UOW graduate doctors more likely to live and work in rural areas

New research supports Graduate School of Medicine’s approach to addressing medical shortage in rural health

The University of Wollongong’s (UOW) Graduate School of Medicine is leading the way in addressing the crippling shortage of doctors in the bush, with new research showing that the School’s graduates are more likely to work in regional and rural areas and more likely to specialise in general practice than graduates of other medical schools in Australia. 

Published in The Australian Journal of Rural Health, a paper from a team of UOW academics shows nearly a third of all UOW medical graduates are working in rural areas up to a decade after finishing their training, a number that is on par with the proportion of the Australian population who live in rural and remote areas.

Co-authors Dr Colin Cortie, Associate Professor David Garne, Associate Professor Lyndal Parker-Newlyn, Professor Rowena Ivers, Professor Judy Mullan, Professor Kylie Mansfield, and Professor Andrew Bonney used statistics gleaned from the Medical Schools Outcomes Database to highlight that UOW’s focus on producing outstanding medical practitioners for regional and rural communities is thriving.

The Medical Deans of Australia and New Zealand Medical Schools’ Outcomes Database is an ongoing longitudinal study of medical students that informs medical workforce planning in Australia and New Zealand. It is a valuable and unique source of data for those involved in medical education, health workforce policy and allows researchers to compare graduate outcomes across all Australian medical schools and universities.

UOW’s Graduate School of Medicine, which launched in 2007, was built on a foundation of improving the health and wellbeing of regional and rural Australia by helping to end the crippling rural doctor shortages.

This long-term, meticulous approach to increasing the number of trained medical practitioners has encompassed recruiting students from rural backgrounds, providing opportunities for longitudinal, long-term clinical placements in rural areas, and building strong community and education networks through regional and rural outreach. 

Dr Colin Cortie, a Post-Doctoral Researcher in UOW’s Graduate School of Medicine, said the research demonstrated that the University’s initiative to boost the number of doctors in regional and rural areas was having a positive and far-reaching impact.

“Training rural doctors has been a focus of the Graduate School of Medicine and, for the first time, this valuable dataset shows just how effective UOW’s approach has been. The government has recognised how valuable these outcomes are by increasing the number of medical student places in the Graduate School of Medicine from 2024 onwards.”

Associate Professor David Garne, Associate Clinical Dean Rural at UOW’s Graduate School of Medicine, said the University has been working for more than a decade to address the crippling shortage of medical specialists in rural communities and was thrilled that this dedication was making a tangible difference.

“Rural medicine is at the heart of everything we do. And for the first time, this valuable dataset shows just how effective our multifaceted approach to improving the health and wellbeing of regional communities is.

“There are now UOW Graduate School of Medicine alumni practising in every Australian state and territory, from Kalgoorlie to Alice Springs to Cooktown, from Warrnambool to Yackandandah to Launceston, from Broken Hill to Grafton to Wagga Wagga.

“The UOW graduate medical program is rurally focused, and the students know what they are signing up for when they enrol. We give a positive weighting to applicants with a rural background and 70 percent of UOW students spend a full year of clinical training in rural communities, an experience that prepares them for the rewards and challenges of practicing in these regions and opening their eyes to the benefits of living in these areas.”

The database showed UOW graduates tended to be older and were more likely to have a partner, dependent children, or other dependents. They were also more likely to come from a rural background and have strong connections to a rural community.

With an ageing and growing population, demand for general practitioner (GP) services in Australia is projected to increase by 38 per cent by 2032, according to the ‘General Practitioner workforce report 2022’. At the same time, the number of GPs is projected to decrease by 4 per cent resulting in a shortfall of 11,000 GPs by 2032.

UOW produces more general practitioners than other universities; 42 per cent of UOW graduates chose to specialise as GPs, compared to 27.7 per cent of graduates from other universities, a number that has been steadily declining over the years. 

The database shows that fewer than 20 per cent of all graduates want to work in regional areas, smaller towns or communities. By comparison, more than 70 per cent of all UOW doctors would prefer a career working outside of a capital city. 

About one-third of Australia’s population lives in a rural or remote area, which creates challenges in terms of equity of access to health care.  

Last December, Federal Member for Gilmore Fiona Phillips MP announced that the Australian Government would fund an extra 15 medical students each year to undertake their studies at the Graduate School of Medicine, reflecting UOW’s outstanding reputation in rural medicine. The funding is part of a $90 million Australian Government investment to support rural medical students nationally. 

Students in the rural end-to-end education undertake all of their studies in a rural setting.

Associate Professor Garne said the research showed the true impact of UOW’s long-term, measured approach to regional and rural health. 

“Rural and remote populations face unique health and social issues, such as Indigenous health needs and inequities, farm safety, social isolation, and natural disasters. These issues are compounded by higher rates of chronic disease, substance abuse and suicide in these settings. 

“This is in addition to the basic, day-to-day healthcare that all citizens expect and deserve. A robust, well-trained medical workforce is fundamental to this, but as we all know, many rural communities lack these vital resources.

“Giving back to rural communities and helping to address the rural doctor shortage has long been the foundation of UOW’s Graduate School of Medicine; we have built this initiative from the ground up, brick by brick, and as the research shows, it is having a true impact on rural Australia.

“There is much more work to do but we are excited that our approach is achieving its aims.”