The career aspirations and location intentions of James Cook University's first cohort of medical students: a longitudinal study at course entry and graduation.Rural Remote Health. 2006 Jan-Mar; 6(1):537.RR
James Cook University's School of Medicine enrolled its first cohort of 64 students in 2000. The School was established with the aim of increasing the number of medical graduates who understand rural, remote, Indigenous and tropical health issues and who would subsequently choose rural (non-metropolitan) practice. In December 2005, 58 students graduated the course. Several students left the cohort (either left the course or repeated earlier years of the course). In the early years, students who left the course were replaced by accelerated entry students.
A student-initiated survey, involving questionnaire and interview components, conducted in 2001 sought information on students' career aspirations and practice location intentions, as well as why students had chosen medicine and the James Cook University course in particular. A brief follow-up survey focused on career aspirations, location of internship and longer term practice location intentions was conducted in October 2005 (2 months before the students graduated). In each instance, participation was anonymous and no identifying information was recorded. Accelerated entry students' responses to the 2005 survey were included.
In 2001, 57 (89%) of the 64 students participated in the study; and in 2005, 50 (86%) of the 58 graduating students responded to the questionnaire survey. Overall, the demographic composition of the 'cohort' changed little. In 2001, 66% of respondents intended to practice in non-metropolitan areas, with 64% so intending at graduation. This was reinforced by 64% choosing internship positions in non-metropolitan areas of Queensland; 56% in north Queensland. Career aspirations changed appreciably between 2001 and 2005: the number of undecided students had halved, the numbers interested in general practice had reduced by one-third, the numbers considering surgery had reduced to one-third, and none was considering paediatrics at exit. Conversely, the number considering emergency medicine had almost doubled and more than doubled for obstetrics and gynaecology.
Given that the majority of intern positions in Queensland are in the south-east of the state, it is noteworthy that two-thirds of students sought and accepted posts elsewhere, predominantly in northern Queensland. Changes in career aspirations reflect two issues. First, respondents' 2005 recollections of what their aspirations were in 2001 varied, reinforcing the value of the longitudinal process. Second, the change of intentions across time possibly reflects exposure to various disciplines and perhaps positive/negative experiences during clinical rotations in the final years of the course. The consistency across time with respect to intention to practice in rural (non-metropolitan) areas suggests that most respondents had eyes on rural practice from early in the course. The findings are in line with other studies that have demonstrated two important factors influence clinicians' decisions to take up non-metropolitan practice: (1) non-metropolitan background; and (ii) substantial and meaningful exposure to non-metropolitan practice during the course.
The findings support the School's contention and that of others around the world that medical education undertaken in non-metropolitan settings is the best vehicle for increasing the rural medical workforce. This study provides support for the development of regional medical schools that focus on local recruitment and health care need issues.