Country practices up in the air

TRYING to nail down funding for health services in regional and rural WA has always been a problem simply because of the vast nature of the State.

Imperative organisations like the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) have always had to rely on the financial support of the community to make ends meet.

There have also been difficulties regarding health service professionals in remote and rural areas – for example, the number of doctors in opting for the county life over that of the city practice.

The difficulties in filling positions for country doctors is compounded by the fact that at present there simply aren’t enough medical students graduating in Western Australia to cover requirements.

According to the executive dean of the Faculty of Medicine at UWA Professor Lou Landau, WA is forced to register 300 overseas-trained doctors each year simply to fill in the gaps.

He said another 40 to 60 medicine graduates would be needed to join the 120 already graduating each year to ease the shortage.

“Particularly rural services are unsatisfactory because of the lack of adequate manpower,” Prof. Laundau said.

In a move to combat this problem, the University of Notre Dame (UND) in conjunction with UWA recently announced plans to develop the State’s first Graduate School of Medicine with specialised training for doctors in remote and rural areas.

The school hopes to be graduating up to 60 people a year by 2004.

The vice chancellor of UND Dr Peter Tannock said that although the Graduate School program was running only at the feasibility study stage, he had high hopes for its success.

“We’ve had a group comprising senior members of the medical profession and people from UWA and UND medical schools looking at it for about 15 months,” he said.

“We’ve also had quite extensive discussions with the State Government.

“The previous minister Mr (John) Day was supportive of the idea as was the commissioner of health.

“We’ve come far enough in these discussions to believe it is a very workable idea and that the climate is right to proceed with it.”

Dean of Health at UND, Professor Michael Quinlan said the graduate program would see students gaining the same degree as students currently leaving UWA, but that they would complete their degree in four years instead of six.

“It gives a greater opportunity for local West Australians to do medicine and different options for the current undergraduate courses offered at UWA,” Prof. Quinlan said.

Although the proposed school will be a fee-paying institution, funding from outside sources will be vital for the go ahead.

Wesfarmers have pledged $1 million to establish the new school, but Dr Tannock admits much more private and public sector support will be needed.

In recent weeks, Wesfarmers and Cockburn Cement (which is donating an IVAC machine to the RFDS) have announced their intentions to help their country clients in the health arena.

Awareness of health issues in rural Australia was again highlighted recently by the winner of the Young Australian of the Year Award, UWA Medical Student James Fitzpatrick.

Mr Fitzpatrick, who won the accolade for his work with regional and remote communities, said that not only is their a shortage of doctors, but of nurses and many other health care professionals.

“There’s a lack of funding going towards recruitment and retention of health practitioners in these areas,” Mr Fitzpatrick said.

“And there also seems to be a lack of funding for the infrastructure that these professionals need to work within.

“I think it’s partly apathy, partly neglect I guess by policy makers and those who direct funds.”

But Mr Fitzpatrick says that funding alone is not to blame for the current state of affairs, saying a lack of understanding about how important rural life in Australia is, and what an important part it played in our identity as a nation.

“I think that it’s too easy for people in cities to be far removed from the agrarian side of our culture and all the wonderful things that contribute to more remote areas of Australia,” he said..

According to Mr Fitzpatrick, financial incentives are needed to lure medical professionals into the bush, but he also said that many of the people working in remote areas were not in it for the money.

“Of all the medical professionals in rural areas that I’ve met, none of them are money-hungry doctors,” he said.

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