Remedy sought for doctor dearth

February 24, 2006

The Australian Government is trying to tackle a crisis in the supply of doctors by ploughing money into university medical faculties and creating more fee-paying places.

It has provided funding to increase the number of medical schools from 12 to 17 and has lifted a cap on fee-paying places for Australian medical undergraduates.

For the first time last year, public universities were able to admit local students prepared to pay the full cost of the five-to-six-year courses. The total outlay for students amounts to A$200,000 (£85,000) at the top universities, so initial interest was not high.

But John Howard, the Prime Minister, announced last week that the limit on the number of full-fee places in medicine that universities were able to offer would be raised from 10 per cent to 25 per cent of total enrolments.

Mr Howard also raised the maximum government loan for those studying medicine from A$50,000 to A$80,000 to help meet the cost of full-fee courses. That will still leave students who have no private funds short by some A$100,000.

The opposition Labor Party said that raising the cap on full-fee medical places would not alleviate the shortage of doctors, especially in country areas. It said that the plan would encourage medical faculties to recruit students only from well-off families and would thus make the current socioeconomic bias even worse.

Jenny Macklin, opposition education spokeswoman, pointed out that all full-fee medical degrees available at Australia's public universities cost more than A$100,000. At three locations, courses cost more than A$200,000.

Ms Macklin said: "It is ridiculous to expect that someone with a A$200,000 debt is going to work on an average GP's salary in the country. Doctors with fee debts bigger than mortgages will prefer high-paying specialisations such as plastic surgery."

She said more Higher Education Contribution Scheme (Hecs) places in medicine was the only solution.

Other critics pointed out that it would take years for the increased number of trainee doctors to complete their courses.

The Government has made it far easier for foreign students to remain in Australia after they graduate and has allowed a growing number of foreign-trained doctors into the country. Just under half of all medical doctors in Australia were born overseas, and the proportion is growing.

Researchers at Monash and Melbourne universities said that over the next few years, a substantial number of foreign students were likely to take advantage of the migration regulations.

"For the longer term, if the current rules remain in place, such numbers could escalate, since the privilege to migrate at the end of training will add to Australia's attractiveness as a location for medical training," the researchers said.

Bob Birrell of Monash and Lesleyanne Hawthorne of Melbourne said that the shortage was a direct result of some of the Howard Government's early decisions in 1996 to limit the number of medical graduates and restrict foreign students qualifying and working in Australia.

Consequently, while the number of GPs remained fairly stable, Australia's population was expanding at about 250,000 a year - leading to the present shortage of doctors.

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