The School of Medicine at Notre Dame University Fremantle campus has been running mandatory, non-clinical, short-term rural placements for all first and second-year medical students since 2005. The placements are funded by the Australian Government’s Rural Health Multidisciplinary Training Program.
The first year Wheatbelt placement is designed to familiarise students with rural health issues, with the aims of providing medical students with experiences to learn firsthand about the social determinants of health in rural Australia and encouraging them to consider working “out bush” after graduation.
The Wheatbelt placement is a collaboration between the Schools of Medicine at the University of Notre Dame, Fremantle and Curtin University, Rural Health West, Western Australia Primary Health Alliance, the Wheatbelt East Regional Organisation of Councils (a collaborative group of local government authorities in the eastern part of the Wheatbelt) and the Shires of Cunderdin, Corrigin, Moora and Narrogin. The active participation of Shires, communities and placement hosts is key to the program’s sustainability and positive influence on Australia’s future doctors
A collaborative effort has resulted in the development of a meaningful educational program that is driven by agreed learning outcomes which are mapped to the Australian Medical Council’s medical student attributes. Local community partners have input into the program to develop bespoke programs for their Shires and towns.
Learning activities common to all Shires include a local Aboriginal cultural experience, a farm safety course, a Teddy Bear Hospital program with lower primary school students and visiting a GP clinic and hospital. One of the major learning activities is being billeted with a local family. This provides students with valuable firsthand experience of rural life and issues. Daily debriefing sessions and journaling activities are incorporated in the program to maximise learning and foster personal growth.
The most recent Wheatbelt Immersion occurred in March 2020, where 100 medical students from the University of Notre Dame, together with 80 second year students from Curtin University participated in a rural immersion experience in nine different Shires within the Wheatbelt region of Western Australia.
A recent publication investigating the perceived long term influence of Notre Dame’s first (Wheatbelt) and second (Kimberley) year rural health placements found that these placements validated pre-existing interest in, or positively influenced graduates’ attitudes towards, rural practice, and enabled empathy and responsiveness when caring for rural patients in both rural and urban health services. Placement hosts unanimously supported the program and contributed social capital to ensure its sustainability. The study demonstrated the sustainability and value of mandatory short-term community-based placements in improving medical graduates’ responsiveness to the health needs of rural Australians.