WA News Feature Articles The Allure of the Bush
The Allure of the Bush
Written by Jan Hallam
Thursday, 23 February 2017

201703-2016-uwa--rural-graduatesThe 2016 graduates from Manjimup/Bridgetown (three of whom attended the Rural Clinical School): (from left) Dr Merredith Cully, Dr Georgia Mather-McCaw, Dr Dylan Prunster, Dr Geoffrey Ryan, Dr Callum Peet and Dr Danielle Malatzky. Photo: Sam Shipley

A few years back, the then head of the Rural Clinical School, Prof Geoff Riley, spoke to Medical Forum about his cautious optimism that programs to attract rural students to medicine and city medical students to the bush were working. It was slow but steady progress. It’s no doubt taken some diplomacy and enormous effort to calm nervous knees in high places from kicking out the plug but sound policy seems to have prevailed.

The Medical Training Review Panel’s (MTRP) latest report of the 2015 data shows a national upwards trends and UWA’s Rural Student Recruitment Program, which is 16 years old, reported in November that 60 rural students from 22 country towns graduated from UWA’s medical school. This was the biggest number of rural-background doctors to graduate in a single year and the fifth consecutive year of growth in graduation numbers. Since 2000, 325 rural WA students have graduated from UWA.

But will they go back to the bush? Head of the RCS Prof David Atkinson says there’s good evidence to suggest that this cohort is three times more likely to return to the country than their city counterparts.

“In addition, 19 students from this year’s rural graduating cohort spent a year training in the country with the RCS, making it even more likely that they will return to the bush,” he said.

Positives of mentoring

The RCS Medical Coordinator at Busselton, GP obstetrician Dr Sarah Moore, said mentoring students was the favourite part of her job.

“I’ve been drawn to it ever since I was mentored so positively when I was at RCS in Kalgoorlie and I’ve sought opportunities to mentor students for a long time now,” she said.

“I love hearing young doctors and students talk about their dreams and passions. It’s wonderful to be able to give them the information that will help them connect the dots because there are not necessarily clear pathways to becoming a rural doctor. It doesn’t have to be a one-track journey.”

“The RCS can help students to determine where they want to get to and help them with the skills, connections and training opportunities they need – not just to get there but to stay in rural practice.”

“What the students give me is a reminder of how to dream big. They don’t allow the confines of bureaucracy and cynicism to cloud their dreams. It keeps me young and creative and looking at challenges as just that, not as barriers.”

Mindful professionalism

Last year, Sarah wrote an eight-week online mindfulness course for RCS students to help them cope with the stresses of being away from their networks. The downloaded digital tools are theirs to keep.

“About half of the 80 cohort opted in and, while not all completed the program, we have enough to evaluate its effectiveness. There are stresses in the job and these tools and practices aim to help students positively focus their stress and use it in a way that will help them be better and more compassionate doctors,” Sarah said.

“I was particularly interested in how students looked after themselves and what time they gave to themselves and to others. Stress can impact on their professionalism and their capacity to show compassion and by learning how to be mindful in their practice improves the doctor-patient relationship.”

Cohort complexities

The ageing of the student body has been dramatic in the past 10 years. The MTRP report found in 2014, 35% of commencing students were 20 years and younger, 45.8% were between 20 and 24, and 13.4% were 25 to 29 and the rest were 30 years and over.

Sarah said that today’s students were often navigating and competing for limited training pathways with a partner or a family to consider and that affected the choices they made.

The one thing that is certain for all students is what they learn today will be out of date sooner than later and Sarah believes that this underscores the importance of teaching core professional skills such as compassion and communication.

“While medical knowledge will change, the need for those skills will remain throughout a doctor’s career. Doctors today need to be open to change and knowing that whatever you’re learning, there is always another way of looking at it. It’s important to have flexibility and resilience.”

By Jan Hallam