Introduction: Rural health workforce issues are a priority area for the Australian Government and substantial funding has been provided for rural education programs to address health workforce disparities across Australia's rural and remote communities. The Australian Government established a Rural Health Strategy in 2001 and as a result there are now 14 rural clinical schools in Australia. The 2008 Urbis Report highlighted the lack of research on rural programs and workforce outcomes, essential to ensuring that educational efforts, resources and funding are being concentrated appropriately. This study examined the Australian National University (ANU) Medical School's 4 year rural program to identify the impact of elective and compulsory program components on student intentions to practice in a rural and remote location post-graduation. The study also explores factors that affect student decisions to apply for year-long rural placements. METHODS; ANU Medical School's graduating cohort of 2008 fourth year medical students completed an anonymous and voluntary online survey questionnaire. Survey sections included student demographics, compulsory and elective components of the ANU rural program, and an overall evaluation of the ANU rural curriculum. The survey contained a mixture of forced-answer questions and open-ended commentary. Quantitative data were analyzed for descriptive and frequency statistics using EpiInfo V3.5.1 (<a href='http://wwwn.cdc.gov/epiinfo/' target='_blank'>http://wwwn.cdc.gov/epiinfo/). Qualitative data were reviewed and consistent themes among responses extracted.
Results: In total, 40 students from a cohort of 88 (45%) responded, with 26 respondents (65%) indicating that at medical school commencement they considered working in a rural or remote area. At the end of their medical education, 33 respondents (82%) indicated their intention to spend some time in their careers working in a rural or remote area. Students from non-rural backgrounds had greater positive change in their intentions to practice rurally as a direct effect of ANU rural programs when compared with students from rural backgrounds. More than 70% of students believed the amount of rural focus in the curriculum was correct, 75% believed that they will be better medical practitioners because of the program, and 85% found the curriculum was delivered effectively. Students who undertook elective rural programs such as a year-long rural placement were more likely to have future rural career intentions when compared with students undertaking compulsory rural components. Compulsory components, however, had a strong influence on students applying for elective programs. Regarding application for the year-long rural placement, students reported clinical exposure was the most encouraging factor, and time away from family and friends, and lack of spousal and family support were the most discouraging factors.
Conclusion: Rural programs at the ANU, and medical school exposure to rural health experiences is important in influencing students' perceptions of a career in rural and remote health. This study provides evidence that both compulsory and elective components contribute to a successful holistic rural program which nurtures the rural interest of all students. Overall, students at the ANU medical school were satisfied with the rural curriculum. The results confirm that there is difficulty in recruiting students with family commitments into year-long rural placement programs, despite incentives. Those students who select long-term rural study for reasons other than an interest in a career in rural health end the program with positive rural intentions.