The James Cook University School of Medicine is the only complete medical school in northern Australia, and it has a mission to prepare graduates to meet the unique needs of the region with a particular emphasis on rural, remote, Indigenous and tropical health. Eight-week 'rural internships' have been undertaken by all sixth-year medical students at James Cook University since 2005. Each student had previously completed at least 12 weeks of structured rural placements in years 2 and 4, as well as other core teaching in rural health including the year 2 subject, 'Rural, Remote, Indigenous and Tropical Health'. Students worked in rural hospitals across northern Australia developing and practising clinical skills under the supervision of senior staff. Students undertook full-time inpatient and outpatient responsibilities under supervision, being rostered for after-hours work with appropriate support. Assessment involved a learning portfolio, including multi-source feedback from peers, supervisors and patients, and a population health project and a telephone referral exercise.
This article describes the development, implementation and assessment of the first years of the program, from 2005 to 2007. Evaluation included student questionnaires, site visits and interviews, and follow-up teleconferences with preceptors.
The rural internship provides senior medical students with valuable experience by active participation in the healthcare team. Students reported a rich and varied clinical experience. Students accept limited supervised responsibility and further their ability and confidence to undertake the role of the intern. Importantly, they proved not to be a burden to the system. This rotation therefore appears to meet educational needs without compromising the local workforce (and indeed may add to it). Students felt welcomed by their communities and enjoyed the social and cultural aspects of their attachment, as well as the clinical aspects and the opportunity to further their understanding of rural communities, rural health care and the healthcare team. Preparation of the students, the preceptors and the communities emerged as a key element of success.
This model extends and enhances the traditional apprenticeship model by its rural focus and distributed nature, and involvement of the entire student cohort. In addition, the contribution to patient care by senior students and junior doctors enables a consultant-registrar-resident model, in which experienced rural doctors function as consultants providing advice, support and tuition rather than predominantly face-to-face patient care. This approach also provides a means to address an emerging paradox: rural preceptors and communities want to teach students, appreciating the long-term workforce implications, but are increasingly constrained by resources, particularly time. Similar innovative approaches should be explored in other settings.