Kicking off in 2022, the new Doctor of Medicine (MD) rural pathway will allow med students to study rural from day one.
The Department of Rural Health expansion, a collaboration between the University of Melbourne and La Trobe University, provides the opportunity to educate and increase retention of rural doctors in Australia.
Addressing the rural healthcare workforce gap
In 2022, 30 students accepted into the new Doctor of Medicine (MD) rural pathway postgraduate program will be able to study in a rural setting from day one.
Delivered by the Department of Rural Health in Shepparton, the program is part of the Murray-Darling Medical Schools Network. It reflects the University of Melbourne and La Trobe University’s shared commitment to building rural medical workforce capacity.
“We don't have the same number of doctors in rural and regional Australia per population as we do in cities,” says Professor Julian Wright, Head of the Department of Rural Health.
“This initiative will be a game changer – we know that people from a regional background who study in regional and rural areas are going to make a major contribution to the workforce of the future in regional areas.”
A commitment to the regions
Students accepted through this pathway must demonstrate a strong commitment to working, living and delivering services in a rural context throughout their medical education and beyond.
“With this initiative, we can map out their pathway in the first year for the whole four years of their degree. That gives them an opportunity to really get involved with the local community and enjoy that rural regional lifestyle as opposed to being in a city,” Professor Wright says.
Students previously interested in a rural-focused MD had to attend the Parkville campus for at least the first year of their degree.
“There will be distinct advantages associated with living and learning together from the outset of the MD program,” says Professor John Prins, Head of Melbourne Medical School.
“It will foster a strong, tightly knit cohort in the rural context. The local community – and the region more broadly – will also gain significant social and health benefits from students who demonstrate commitment to an MD rural pathway, not only for their studies but also their career in the long term.”
Two student pathways, one united vision
Fifteen students gained entry through the Bachelor of Biomedical Science (Medical) program at La Trobe University, a seven-year bonded program, and 15 places were available to postgraduates from other universities. In addition to meeting the academic entry requirements, students must have spent a minimum of five consecutive years, or 10 cumulative years, living outside of a metropolitan area.
Abigail Rowe is one of the inaugural students from La Trobe University, Bendigo.
“I can't believe something so perfect existed, that I could receive this kind of education from rural towns in a rural setting,” she says. “I've loved how it took into account the whole student. They really spoke to me about my rural passions, where I volunteer, where I spend most of my time, and what my values are.”
The rural pathway offers students the opportunity to start building their career networks.
“If we have a student, for example, who knows they want to be a rural generalist right from day one, we can connect them with people who can mentor them, talk about their experiences, what they did, and what their journey was like towards that goal,” Professor Wright says.
Second year medical student Gabriella Smith, now based at Shepparton, has seen the juxtaposition between metropolitan and rural health services first-hand. The experience has strengthened her commitment to rural medicine.
“My rural background, my interest in health and caring for people – but then also, coming to Melbourne and seeing how well things can run when we have enough doctors – just solidified that I need to be part of that change to help solve this problem.”
Launching a new MD curriculum
Next year also marks the introduction of the new MD curriculum, designed to be more responsive and flexible in its approach. The course can be tailored to the interests of the individual student through continuous research and discovery options and enhanced clinical placement opportunities.
“The rural pathway is commencing at a very exciting time in the evolution of the Melbourne Medical School’s MD. The development, planning and imminent transition to the new MD curriculum has been a whole of school effort with numerous dedicated staff involved and the rural pathway has been front of mind in the course redesign,” Professor Prins says.
The new curriculum will allow students to contribute to the local community from day one. “We want students to get a first-class education and we also want them to be well supported and have a great time while they’re studying,” Professor Wright says.
“We've had to move to online teaching because of COVID in the last couple of years. That has given us some great opportunities to get better at flexible teaching and learning, which is going to be a feature of the rural pathway,” he says.
Boosting rural infrastructure
Federal government funding under the Murray-Darling Medical Schools Network will also see improved infrastructure on the existing five-acre Shepparton campus. The $6.5 million investment is earmarked for capital construction, infrastructure maintenance and service delivery in the region.
Construction commenced in March 2021, following extensive community consultation with 45 stakeholders. “There were some challenges due to pandemic restrictions, but we maintained momentum throughout the design and consultation process – moving from remote modelling to back to campus then remote again,” says Darren Grossmann, Project Manager of the Doctor of Medicine (Rural Pathway).
Local builders were employed to construct the new student accommodation and teaching buildings with three state-of-the-art tutorial rooms and spaces that support virtual reality anatomical teaching and medical simulations.
Enriching the local community
By the end of 2025, 120 students will be working their way through the rural pathway. Professor Wright says the community view this initiative as a long-term value proposition.
“When those students go on to join the local medical workforce, that's going to be a very powerful ongoing commitment to this community,” Professor Wright says.
“We've been really pleased to have both members of the local community and representatives from the local health services involved in the interview process. Our local health services understand the challenge of the workforce shortage better than anybody and there has been nothing but delight and anticipation for this initiative,” he says.
The students are similarly eager to embark on their rural medicine journey, says Ms Rowe.
“My main drive to study medicine regionally is to give back to the community that raised me and the people that do so much for my upbringing, and everything that I have been surrounded by all my life.”
Ms Smith agreed. “I think from growing up in rural towns, seeing the impact of a lack of GPs really interested me … that's what gave me the idea that maybe I could be a doctor,” she says.
“That passion for wanting to close that gap, for me really meant that I need to be a doctor. I need to pursue medicine, so I can address it firsthand.”