Introduction: The Australian Government has provided funding for Rural Clinical Schools (RCS) to provide substantial rural clinical experience to medical students. The strategy aims to acculturate students into rural living with the intended long-term outcome of increasing the availability and viability of rural health services. When evaluators from two of the Rural Clinical Schools discussed findings and insights relating to rural rotations from their in-depth evaluation studies of their respective schools they found a range of similarities. This article is a collaboration that articulates parallel findings from evaluations over 2 years, using three different approaches to students' placements across the two RCS: (1) students based long term in one centre (with only a few days away at a time); (2) students based long term in one centre with short-term rotations of 3-6 weeks away from home base; and (3) week rotations without a home base.
Method: The two RCS, as part of their initial establishment, put comprehensive internal evaluation processes in place, including the employment of dedicated evaluators extant from the teaching and assessment of the rural medical curriculum. Data were collected and analysed according to standard education evaluation procedures.
Results: Home-base preference: most students preferred having a home base in one centre and having as little time as possible away from that centre, while recognising that sometimes the requirement to go and learn elsewhere was useful. The reasons for this were three-fold: academic, clinical and social. Academic benefits: students enjoyed the excellence of teaching and learning opportunities in their rural sites and did not want their discipline of learning interrupted by what they perceived as unnecessary change. Students with a home base used their learning opportunities qualitatively differently from those students who had 6 week rotations. Their learning became self-directed and students sought opportunities to extend and consolidate areas of need. Clinical benefits: contributions to the clinical team: students in their clinical years want to feel useful and to be allowed to become contributors to the medical care, even as they are learning. A longer rotation allows them to become known to their teachers who are then able to easily assess the type of contribution that is appropriate for their students to undertake. Students then become full participating members of the healthcare team, rather than observing learners. Social benefits: all students with a home base actively participated in a wide range of community activities outside their role as medical students. Those students undertaking short rotations without a home base seldom connected in the same way to any rural community.
Conclusion: Evaluation from these two RCS has shown that short rotations are likely to be less optimal than longer rotations for meeting the broader goals of the RCS to build future workforce capacity. Our results suggest that one opportunity to acculturate students into the rural lifestyle is lost when students' placements are insufficiently long for them to put down roots in their community, and to understand how to 'live' there more broadly. Good rural experiences and teaching and learning opportunities are not sufficient in themselves. Students' emotional attachment to rural living comes from experience related to time and the connection to local people that comes as a result of time spent in the community. Students on short rotations do not make that local connection.