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20 May 2019

DR SANDRA HIROWATRI, CHAIR, AMA COUNCIL OF RURAL DOCTORS

This past election marks the fifth Federal Election I have not been able to vote in. This is because (despite years of trying) I am not an Australian citizen. Another Australian election has come and gone without my vote being counted, without my voice being heard.

I am often referred to in policy documents as an IMG (international medical graduate) or an OTD (overseas trained doctor). In the communities where I work, I am more commonly referred to as “Doc”. There are now more of us than there are Australian medical graduates working as GPs in Australia, especially in rural Australia. Due to the absence of any medical workforce planning in Australia for fifteen years, we have watched ourselves go from being a solution to the problem of maldistribution to part of the problem of impending medical workforce oversupply.

Despite this, we continue to do the hard work out bush. Often, we do this with limited support for our own family’s medical or educational requirements. And we are excluded from the decision-making processes which affect our lives and livelihoods as rural doctors who were not born in Australia. We don’t get a say in who governs our communities, even if the local member happens to be one of our patients.

I have to rely on the AMA to be my voice on many of the issues that affect me as a doctor. I am grateful that the AMA listens, and when it can, acts.

We rural doctors have had some wins with the last Government, part in thanks to AMA advocacy. This included hundreds of millions of dollars invested in rural health through the Stronger Rural Health Strategy, the introduction of the National Rural Health Commissioner and the National Rural Generalist Pathway. Unfortunately, we are yet to see any significant results from this.

This was reflected in the results of the AMA Rural Health Issues Survey conducted earlier this year. Unsurprisingly, the number one priority for rural doctors was to provide extra funding and resources to support improved staffing levels in hospitals, including core visiting medical officers, to allow workable rosters. This is the same as it was in 2016.

The second most important issue was the inclusion of rural rotations for doctors in specialty training. This is because we know rural experience increases the likelihood of a doctor in training remaining or returning to us. 

Other key issues included broadband internet access, improving infrastructure, improved support for upskilling – these are all issues which were at the top of the last Survey, too. At our last Council of Rural Doctors meeting, two members could not join for lack of connection! This is not good enough.

Another major recent win that will take some time to pay off was the announcement of a new National Medical Workforce Strategy. I was overjoyed with the announcement, but a strategy alone won’t fix our issues out bush. We need action, and we don’t want to wait for it.

When the new Strategy is completed, our new Government will likely be in power. It is crucial that this taken seriously. We need to ensure that the development of the Strategy includes the voices of all rural doctors, not just those who got to vote, because the outcome will have a major impact on us. We need to remember the doctors who have been faithfully serving the rural communities for years are and value their commitment.

I hope that in four years’ time I will be able to say the I voted in an Australian election, but in the meantime I am going to keep advocating for rural health and for rural doctors, and you should too. Did a candidate make a promise to you during a campaign and now they are in power? Hold them to that promise. That’s what the AMA will be doing. The AMA will be doing it for all doctors, regardless of where they graduated.


Published: 20 May 2019