How to fix the shortage of country doctors

Image of doctor examining a patient.
Selecting medical students with rural backgrounds will help boost the number of country doctors.

A shortage of Australian doctors in rural communities continues to be a serious problem.

But in a new paper, researchers at the University of Melbourne and Monash University have recommended several key steps to reduce the persistent reliance of regional centres and small towns on international medical graduates.

Solving Australia’s rural medical workforce shortage is written by Professor Anthony Scott from the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, at the University of Melbourne, and Dr Matthew McGrail, Belinda O’Sullivan and Dr Deborah Russell from Monash University’s School of Rural Health.

The oversupply of city-based doctors, coupled with the Department of Health's proposed plans to remove medical jobs from the Skilled Occupation list, provides an incentive for workforce agencies to recruit domestically-trained graduates rather than those from overseas.

The authors see this as a significant opportunity to attract doctors to rural areas and better meet the healthcare needs of Australians living outside metropolitan areas.

“The hope is that increased numbers of locally trained doctors will meet rural service demand," Professor Scott said.

But the authors said increasing sub-specialisation among recent graduates is likely to keep limiting their suitability for rural work.

Therefore, the research recommends:

  • Select medical students with rural backgrounds and provide rural immersion options for them. This more than doubles the supply of country GPs
  • Increase the number of trainees in general practice and other generalist specialities to boost the uptake of rural practice as a career
  • Ensure more vocational training is available in rural areas, particularly for GPs and specialities most needed in these locations
  • Give rural doctors access to locum support and professional development to retain their services, and
  • Target financial incentives more carefully to take into account the population of a town, its size, remoteness and local need.

The authors said effective policies to persuade more Australian medical graduates to work in rural areas can be informed by a growing body of empirical evidence, such as that provided by the annual Medicine in Australia: Balancing Employment in Life (MABEL) survey, from the Melbourne Institute.

“Improved rural recruitment could be achieved by more widely disseminating evidence showing that a career in a rural areas, whether as a GP or a specialist, is rewarding and satisfying despite the challenges,” Professor Scott said.