Image Source: James Cook University
By Phil Pirone
New requirements for overseas-trained doctors will include a compulsory period of rural work experience for those seeking Australian visas.
Under federal requirements introduced earlier this month, all general practitioners (GPs) seeking a working visa in Australia will be required to obtain a Health Workforce Certificate, which can only be issued by a Rural Workforce Agency.
These requirements aim to address mounting concerns surrounding the shortage of GPs in rural Australia.
The topic gained substantial traction in 2018 with the Department of Health estimating there was a deficit of 534 full-time practitioners in rural Australia – a figure they expected to double by 2025.
Lyn Poole is the CEO of the Rural Doctors Work Force Agency in South Australia, and oversees the training and placement of rural doctors nationwide.
Ms Poole said Australia had been reliant on an overseas workforce in the healthcare field for close to two decades, so the concept of bringing foreign doctors to rural areas was not groundbreaking.
“We’re a nation established by doctors who were qualified elsewhere, so I think this initiative is great, but realistically we’ve relied on the assistance of overseas GPs for around 15 years,” she said.
Ms Poole also said a one-dimensional view of GP job vacancies in rural communities was creating a heightened sense of fear.
Simpler focus on the distribution of numbers was required, with some rural areas boasting as many as 50 GPs.
“The constantly misinterpreted GP vacancy figures often represent a clinic looking for more doctors on a ‘want’ basis, rather than a need determined by an increasing workload,” Ms Poole said.
“The issue really comes down to distributing the numbers we have.
“A solo working GP simply doesn’t have the time to train up doctors coming through, stunting progress in remote areas and pushing these numbers to the larger rural areas.”
But many in the medical community are raising serious concerns over the new federal requirements, even questioning the strength of overseas qualifications.
Australian Medical Association WA president Omar Khorshid said requiring overseas-trained doctors to work in rural Australia was troublesome.
“There is an ethical problem with us relying on overseas-trained doctors to fulfil our needs as an Australian community and it is certainly much more important that we focus on training the right people,” he said.
“We also need to ensure the quality of their training and their practice, which is pretty hard to do.”
At a local level, Adelaide doctors are continuing to ‘go rural’, creating a sense of optimism and helping remove the stigma surrounding rural work.
Royal Adelaide Hospital intern Zach Hender-Hill has grown up in Adelaide but said he hopes to make his mark in remote Australia, applying for the rural GP Training Program.
“A rural placement during my degree presented me with a unique and exciting opportunity to really take on multiple roles,” he said.
“I became the emergency doctor, the obstetrician and the anaesthetist all at once.
“There’s certainly a push at a tertiary level to get out there and try the rural lifestyle, as well as compulsory placements, so I think we will definitely see a natural rise in local doctors working rurally.”