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Original Research

Recruiting undergraduates to rural practice: what the students can tell us

Submitted: 20 February 2005
Revised: 7 June 2005
Published: 4 October 2005

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Author(s) : Orpin P, Gabriel M.

Peter OrpinMichelle Gabriel

Citation: Orpin P, Gabriel M.  Recruiting undergraduates to rural practice: what the students can tell us. Rural and Remote Health 5: 412. (Online) 2005. Available: http://www.rrh.org.au

ABSTRACT

Introduction: There are still large gaps in the evidence base for the effectiveness of Australian undergraduate rural coursework and placements programs designed to increase the numbers of health graduates choosing rural practice. This article reports on an online survey conducted in 2004 of health science students at the University of Tasmania, Australia, designed as a part of a long-term study to test coursework interventions by tracking students’ attitudes to, and experience of, rural practice from course entry to eventual practice.
Method: All first and final year students in medicine, nursing and pharmacy in the Faculty of Health Science were invited to complete an online survey exploring the undergraduate experience of rural health.
Results: The survey was completed by 148 first year and 87 final year students, a response rate of 32.4% and 23.1% respectively. Over one-third (38.5%) of first years and 56.3% of final years indicated a general preference for rural life and practice and almost 90% expected to spend at least some of their career in rural practice. There was a statistically significant relationship between rural practice orientation and rural origin among first years, although this relationship was weaker among final years. Of first years, 82.4%, and 82.7% of final years appear to have made at least some commitment to a particular career path, and two-thirds to a particular practice environment. Rurally oriented first year students were significantly more committed to a career path than those without that orientation, although this did not hold for final years. When asked how much of their careers they expected to spend in capital city, rural, remote and/or overseas practice, both first and final year students’ responses were notable for their spread. Few ruled rural or urban practice in or out entirely with most opting for middle range responses of ‘most’, ‘about half’ or ‘part’ of their career. Over half of both years expected to spend some time in remote practice and 75.1% of first years and 66.6% of final years some time in overseas practice. The factors rated most important in relation to career choice were those related directly to the realities of day-to-day professional practice ─ professional and peer support, work conditions and variety of work. Approximately three-quarters of those entering undergraduate education felt themselves to be at least ‘somewhat informed’ about rural practice but, apart from medical students, were little better informed by final year. The only perception of rural practice very widely shared (by more than 80% of respondents) was the possibility of developing better patient relations. Many of the other factors frequently identified as major issues in the rural practice literature — locality, flexibility, opportunities for further study, and spouse/partner and children’s needs - while recognised by some, do not appear to loom large with undergraduates either in terms of career choice or perceptions of rural practice. Most final year students recalled receiving specific rural health training through rural placements and/or rural curriculum content. Overall recall of coursework was patchy, although placements were well-remembered and there was good support for increases in both. None of those who recalled undertaking rural coursework felt that it had influenced them towards a rural career and over two-thirds (n = 37, 69.8%) felt that this exposure had actually influenced them away from such a career. Three students reported that undertaking a rural placement influenced them towards, and 35 away from, a rural/remote career.
Conclusion: The ultimate measure of the success of undergraduate interventions will be workforce changes over time. In the meantime more research is needed into undergraduate experience of rural health to provide the data needed for the careful design of coursework, detailed planning of the placement experience and long-term strategies to address those aspects of rural practice that are of most concern to these emerging health professionals.

Keywords: career choice, medical education, undergraduate.

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