Student program shows rural medicine within reach for city docs

By Siobhan Calafiore

3 Aug 2023

A cardiologist who divides his time between working in the city and bringing specialist services to the bush is inspiring a new generation of doctors to do the same.

Dr Rolf Gomes is founder of Heart of Australia, a mobile medical program that uses a fleet of five purpose-built semi-trailers to deliver healthcare to patients in remote Queensland.

He has developed a student experience program called NextGen Medics to give medical students and allied health students a chance to experience the unique model of outreach service delivery in the hope that one day they’ll want to contribute to regional healthcare.

“We started receiving a lot of emails from medical students saying, ‘we’d love to spend some time on the trucks if you could accommodate us’,” Dr Gomes told the limbic.

“I thought, wouldn’t it be great to give them the opportunity to not just learn medicine, because you don’t have to be in a truck in the middle of nowhere to learn how to read an ECG, but to give them an opportunity to experience a lot of other things firsthand.”

This includes learning about the challenges of living in rural areas and the barriers to healthcare access from the patients themselves, spending time in the clinic with specialists, visiting local hospitals and getting an insight into a rural career from local GPs.

“It’s about making them understand what tyranny of distance means,” Dr Gomes said.

“When you have a truck and you see patients having to use the wheelchair lift to get into the truck, you suddenly get it that tyranny of distance means that those frail patients were never going to travel anywhere to see a specialist. It’s impossible.”

“Everyone is talking about health innovation. This is a tangible example of it. We’ve got the world’s first battery operated hospital-grade CT scanner parked on the red dirt in the bush.”

With sponsorship from pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim, Dr Gomes has been able to expand the program to two cohorts of 10 students each year, who visit three locations over 10 days. Students usually can engage with a minimum two specialties.

Specialties include cardiology, cardiac sonography, endocrinology, gastroenterology, gynaecology, radiology, neurology, psychology and sleep and respiratory services.

The reasons for students’ interest in the program were varied, Dr Gomes said.

Some grew up in regional areas and wanted to return there to practice medicine, while others who couldn’t commit to life in the country wanted to still make a contribution.

“Certainly we try and encourage students who are interested in general practice to consider a full-time career in regional areas, but for those who are thinking of specialist training, it has really opened up some options for them in the future to contribute to regional healthcare in the specialty capacity,” Dr Gomes said.

“And for those GPs, having specialists turn up for their patients who are too frail to travel, it makes their practice less stressful. The more services you can bring into these communities, the more it adds to the tapestry of the health ecosystem there.”

There were also benefits beyond helping students make choices around career locations and travel, he added.

“Our students are also more informed about some of the issues facing regional health, having spoken to the patients, having spoken to their doctors, and if they’re ever in a position where they’re making decisions about healthcare delivery in regional areas – whether it’s policymaking or whether it’s funding arrangements – they’ll have a more informed background to help them make those decisions,” he said.

Dr Gomes said following the experience, students could join the alumni program and chaperone new students on future trips. There was also opportunity to become part of the Heart of Australia program as clinicians, with the organisation taking care of the logistics, including flights, accomodation, transport, meals, patient bookings and billing.

“All they really have to do is put their stethoscope in their suitcase, catch a flight and go out there and practice their craft.”

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