Two Joint Medical Program (JMP) final year medical students have started a 19-week program as part of a drive to boost the region's healthcare workforce.
Sarah Appleby and Jess Chambers are in their final year of training as doctors and wish to become rural General Practitioners (GPs).
They are the first cohort in a program built on the understanding that GPs who train in the country more often stay in the country.
The students will experience work as 'apprentice rural generalist doctors' in Inverell, working alongside practicing GPs as they assess people presenting with illness, treating them in hospital, and tracking their recovery.
They will be placed at Armajun Aboriginal Health Service, Inverell Medical Centre and Inverell Hospital, gaining experience in cultural and social aspects of health as well as deepening their medical knowledge.
The extended clinical experience of 19 weeks is intended to embed Ms Chambers and Appleby in a community of real people, facing real challenges, to give them a sense of the value of the rural GP's role.
"All the evidence shows that if you want people to work as doctors in rural areas, then you either need to attract students who have grown up in the country, or make it attractive for them to train in a rural centre," said Dr Maree Puxty, academic coordinator of the pilot program for final year students of the JMP.
"In effect, we're trying to grow our own rural generalist GP's."
Dr Puxty has practiced as a GP in Moree and Armidale for 26 years and said rural practice had benefits for a rewarding medical career, financial security and work-life balance.
"You know that you are part of a community and that you are making a difference," she said.
"Australia has more than 3500 medical graduates per year but that has not translated into rural medical workforce. There are about 2.2 GPs per thousand head of population in rural areas compared to 4.6/1000 in urban areas.
"There's plenty of work for rural GP's but you can still have a positive work-life balance."
Ms Appleby is from Inverell and Ms Chambers is from Armidale and both say they are committed to a future in rural practice and delighted to have first-hand experience in the rural setting in which they wish to work as graduates.
"I think it will be just less boring than a conventional city practice," Ms Appleby says.
"You have an opportunity to connect with your community, and follow people right through all the stages of their illness."
Ms Chambers sees similar possibilities in rural practice, and adds that studying with the JMP in a rural setting is another example of the advantages of taking a less conventional path to medicine.
"I know my lecturers and the admin staff, and I can talk to them directly about issues."
However, they acknowledge that there are challenges ahead, too. "When you don't have enough GP's and specialists to serve a community, it is not conducive to work-life balance for the healthcare profession," Ms Appleby says.
"People spend too much time 'on-call', and can burn out. But one of the best responses is a program like this, which encourages students from early stage in their careers to be interested in rural general practice and have that exposure to how good it can be."
Most students entering the Joint Medical Program aspire to study in Newcastle. Those who end up coming to the Tablelands Clinical School in Armidale as part of the JMP Rural Clinical School program often do so with trepidation. Some remain firmly focused on a career in urban practice,
"But others realise, hey, this isn't so bad, and become more open to working in a rural area," Ms Appleby said.
After their 19-week placement in Inverell is finished, Ms Chambers and Appleby will be followed by another two students for the second semester of the year.
Dr Puxty hopes that in the future, the program will be extended to more students, and placements will occur more widely across the New England-North West.
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