Did you know that more than half of Australian medical graduates since the year 2000 have been women and yet they are 20-40 per cent less likely to practice in a rural area?
Helping women enter and remain in the rural general practitioner and rural generalist workforce, in their full capacity and scope, directly supports rural communities. To date, there has been a paucity of policies nuanced to address issues unique to this group. This is a profound oversight if our rural communities are to capitalise on the number of women graduating from medical schools across the country.
RACGP Rural’s Doctors for Women in Rural Medicine committee recently facilitated an interactive session on this issue at the World Organisation of Family Doctors (WONCA) World Conference in Sydney in October. The WONCA23 conference brought together 4,400 delegates from more than 100 countries, including many from its’ Australian co-host, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, and member organisation the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine.
“Roundtable Reconnection: the Quest to Revive and Restore the Female Rural Medical Workforce,” drew together participants from a diverse array of backgrounds and countries. Adjunct Associate Professor Belinda O’Sullivan, of Murray PHN and University of Queensland, outlined evidence about issues and barriers unique to female rural doctors, following it with a passionate call to action to address these.
That’s when the fun started: participants broke out into groups to focus on solutions. Their enthusiasm was audible as colleagues shared examples that have enabled them to support the work and communities they love. Groups addressed four key areas critical to supporting this workforce: Early Career Support and Training, Partner’s Work, Job and Childcare Co-design and Professional Networks and Support. Brainstorming had begun in the preceding week via a series of discussions in the Doctors for Women in Rural Medicine Facebook group, which allowed those unable to attend WONCA23 to contribute.
Ideas were diverse and ranged from the obvious – policies that increase parental leave entitlements and childcare availability – to the novel and unexpected. One participant highlighted the exclusion of au pair work from working holiday visa time accumulation with potential consequences for availability of this kind of childcare in rural areas. Others spoke of unofficial networks behind the scenes in their communities that had helped partners find unadvertised work opportunities.
The desire for mentorship from other female rural doctors was raised repeatedly, as was the need for clinical back-up and access to secondary consultation when practising solo or in remote communities. One doctor spoke about the role an online social media community for GPs had played in keeping her practising by providing direct clinical support and a sense of collegiality at a time when she felt isolated and vulnerable. I felt a twinge of envy when a Canadian colleague described their annual national conference specifically for female doctors, primarily for the purposes of connection and networking. For a bunch who rarely get an opportunity to be together in person, it was a wonderful to reconnect after the isolating years of the pandemic and give voice to issues we have all experienced so personally.
We are now collating the collective knowledge, examples and ideas from the session into a white paper to present to professional bodies and government with the intention of influencing policy and decisions that affect the female medical, and undoubtedly, broader female health workforce. One positive step of the many that contribute to supporting the health of all our rural communities.