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ABC News

New medical interns hoped to be part of solution to doctor shortage in regional Victoria

Trainee doctors Andrew Cobden and Katie Chapman have their career paths set in regional Australia.

The interns are among 39 who have started their 12-month placement at Bendigo Health in regional Victoria, and will complete five rotations across the emergency department, general surgery and general medicine.

Former army logistics officer and Bendigo resident Katie Chapman wants to work in remote communities after her registrar year.

She said having a life previous to medicine helped her see the larger picture beyond being a doctor.

"I am interested in being a rural generalist, the kind of jack of all trades," she said.

"I do like the idea of working somewhere quite remote. I'd also like to be able to do time with Aboriginal communities.

"I'd like to develop a skill set where I can go in and work, say, one week out of every month in a community somewhere."

A decade to find more doctors

A report by the Australian Medical Association last month revealed Australia was on track to face a shortage of more than 10,000 GPs in 10 years' time, with regional areas suffering the most.

Bendigo Health said its retention rate of interns was about 40 per cent each year.

Intern Andrew Cobden, from Mildura, completed placements across Victoria before beginning the program.

He said it was Bendigo Health's TikTok page that drew him to the service, as well as its patient-first approach to care.

"I did the extended rural program, which was a really amazing opportunity actually because often a lot of students I guess go to one hospital and that's where they study their entire degree," he said.

"I've studied in Ballarat, I've studied in Bendigo. I've studied in Mildura, I've studied in Mansfield. I've studied in Shepparton and I've studied in Echuca, so I've collected almost all the cards."

The Australian Medical Association found demand for GP services increased by 58 per cent between 2009 and 2019, while only 4,200 GPs joined the nation's workforce.

Murray Primary Health Network chief executive Matt Jones said country areas were already facing a crisis when it came to needing more medical professionals.

"There's one GP per 800 people. If you look at regional areas, it tends to be one GP per 1,200 people and in remote areas, it's one GP per 1,500 people," he said.

"So the issues aren't just [that] we need more GPs, it's also where those GPs are located."

Retention rates still an issue

The health authority's director of the medical workforce unit, Hannah Cole, hoped the young doctors would stay on to work across the region.

"That's going to be an ongoing challenge for all health services in the coming years post-pandemic. But we do believe by having them here and giving them the experience that will hopefully attract them to stay longer," she said.

Bendigo Health is the leading health service for north-west Victoria and employs around 4,000 staff.

Its catchment area covers a quarter of the size of Victoria and services extend to areas such as Mildura, Echuca, Swan Hill, Kyneton and Castlemaine.

The new $1 billion hospital has been in operation since 2017, and by 2019 was treating more than 80,000 patients across the Loddon Mallee region each year.

Bendigo Health's Supervisor of Intern Training, Dr Vishnu Jeganathan, said some of the interns had already completed six years of study.

"The interns over the next 12 months will be working as first-time doctors and this is part of their first year of training to get the general registration," he said.

Dr Chapman said the attraction of working in the regions came with experience and age.

"When I was younger, I was really more interested in being in the bigger cities where there were more things to do. Whereas now I'm more interested just in helping the community and giving back," she said.

"I'm also religious, and it was something that God told me to do."

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