25 August 2017 Dr Ayman Shenouda
RECRUIT, TRAIN AND RETAIN
Getting the policy settings right
I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to secure the next generation of rural GPs. Now more than ever before we have the right policy settings in place. We need to seize this opportunity to ensure we select the right doctors for rural Australia.
Once we’ve overcome that first hurdle in getting them there, we need to then ensure those registrars who choose rural practice, that once secured, they remain there. But not only remain there that they continue to thrive. To do this we need to ensure the right supports are in place.
The policy momentum has been building for some time with the help of thousands of rural GP champions – possibly most now reading this blog – who have advocated for change over many years.
We now have the right set of policy conditions: an overall increase in medical school intake with quarantined placements for rural; a rural emphasis and exposure with a focus on generalism as a priority in the training; and, of course, the regional training hubs which will soon be in place to help link the various stages of training.
We finally have the makings of an integrated rural medical training pathway. This includes a priority on rural community internships – a clear gap which needed fixing – and soon with the regional hubs, training can be structured in a more coordinated facilitated way.
The hubs, in particular, will strengthen the efforts of the Rural Clinical Schools’ and help build the facilities and infrastructure and teaching capacity needed to make this work. For the trainee, it will help to provide the navigational supports that have been so lacking in the past from medical school to rural practice. Importantly, we have a focus on non-coercive strategies in securing the next generation of rural GPs.
Why enter, why stay, why leave?
We know that many factors influence rural intention and that it is getting those supports right and across the full training continuum that counts.
Ruralising the curriculum is a key one. Embedding more primary care early into the medical curriculum is essential and this has certainly been said often enough. But other simple things like placing a rural scenario in the exam would also help to formalise assessment to enforce primary care and emphasise the important role of the generalist.
Getting them in early and interact as often as possible is another key requirement. Nurturing your registrars once there requires a whole of community effort.
I think it is instilling that sense of belonging that is vital at this point so the emphasis then needs to be multifactorial. Positive exposure offering a mix of rural experiences including clinical and nonclinical competencies and of the latter leadership being a key one here, the ability to lead and work in teams cannot be emphasised enough.
Trainees want broad exposure and the opportunity for multiple levels of clinical learning through blended placements. Trainees need to be empowered to make informed career decisions and to obtain the skills they need in the local setting. A community with the right structures and partnerships in place can facilitate this well.
Next is community connection and engagement and getting that right. This really gets to the heart of the issue – this is why they stay – that sense of place and identity. Ensuring a strong rural connection is hard work in training terms but worth the effort in the long run.
This is all part of developing a professional identity and mentoring plays a key role here. Longer-term placements in and around the same community also help to build those lasting relationships.
While I think an intrinsic characteristic of most GPs is their altruism there are also limits. We need to formalise that mentoring point – and at every learning stage – so that rural GPs and broader teaching staff are able to commit their focus towards mentoring.
More funding for mentoring has to be part of the suite of incentives in support of rural intention. Formalising succession planning in this way would help to ease the pressure on those nearing retirement too. That’s the ‘gracious exit’ part that often gets forgotten but just as vital as ‘easy entry’ for rural.
A rural pipeline functioning well can support these broader retention outcomes in terms of supplementing supply over time through a constant stream of new entrants. This would help make rural practice even more attractive as it provides an exit strategy for rural GPs without having to make that lifetime commitment. Rural GPs could stay for a shorter period, up to five years, without causing the workforce disruption that currently occurs upon exiting. Rural practice could become a standard part of the GP journey with supportive policy offering more flexibility and opportunity to spend at least part of your career within a rural community.
Now finally, getting to the hardest bit. Once you have them, then the focus then shifts to keeping them there. And getting to the bottom of that is a whole new set of questions which tend to include broader impacts including those on family.
Factors including an adequate income, appropriate workload, locum provision, access to specialists’ advice and continuing education, spouse career opportunities and children education all come in to play. Again, it takes a whole community to help make this work.
Bringing it all together
Piecing it all together there are a lot of factors that need to come together to get rural recruitment, training and retention right. Ensuring we have the right set of incentives in place for those making the commitment is key to policy success including rewarding advanced skills, procedural and non-procedural.
In understanding intentions to practice rurally, we know that rural origin plus a rural clinical school placement is a significant predictor. But there are many ways to get there and we should keep an open mind as many get there by accident. I think I fit that last category having only come to rural practice at the age of 35 after commencing in a completely different specialty to being with.
In securing strong rural outcomes, it comes down to nurturing those with an interest and being able to bundle those known influences. We’ve certainly come a long way in securing the right supports and focus to realise a fully integrated rural training pathway. It’s a multitude of factors including supportive policy and a strong local commitment from each and every one of us, but not least the trainee to secure the next generation of rural GPs.
 RACGP. New approaches to integrated rural training for medical practitioners. Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. 2014. Available at: http://www.racgp.org.au/download/Documents/Rural/nrffinalreport.pdf
 Parlier AB, Galvin SL, Thach S, Kruidenier D, Fagan EB. The Road to Rural Primary Care: A Narrative Review of Factors That Help Develop, Recruit, and Retain Rural Primary Care Physicians. Acad Med. 2017 Aug 1. doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000001839. [Epub ahead of print]Availablat: http://journals.lww.com/academicmedicine/Abstract/publishahead/The_Road_to_Rural_Primary_Care___A_Narrative.98154.aspx
 RACGP 2014, op. cit. p.65.
 Humphreys J, Jones J, Jones M, et al. A critical review of rural medical workforce retention in Australia. Aust Health Rev 2001;24:91-102. [PubMed]
 Walker JH, DeWitt DE, Pallant JF, Cunningham CE. Rural origin plus a rural clinical school placement is a significant predictor of medical students’ intentions to practice rurally: a multi-university study. Rural Remote Health. 2012;12:1908.PubMed
Dr Ayman Shenouda