Senate debates

Wednesday, 31 October 2012


Medical Workforce

7:08 pm

Photo of Fiona NashFiona Nash (NSW, National Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Regional Education) Share this | | Hansard source

Senators will recall that I asked the government in question time on Monday what it was planning to do about the current medical internships crisis. The government has failed to fund internships for 80 students and failed to resolve an impasse in negotiations with the states.

The international students, who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars training at our universities, will now have to undertake their internships overseas, where they will presumably go on to practice. This crisis has resulted in the government effectively deporting 80 Australian-trained medical students.

I asked the minister if he agreed that people studying medicine in Australia had a reasonable expectation of being provided internships in Australia in order to complete their qualifications. I further asked the minister what the point was of training more medical students through Australian universities if they cannot finish their training in this country. The minister's response was frankly bizarre. He admitted that despite extensive recent media coverage, he knew nothing at all about the issue and even suggested that I should have been talking to the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship for some reason.

To be fair to the minister, he provided a written response to me today, but it was no more helpful. In it he boasts about the government providing $2 billion for medical training while at the same time refusing to budge on the paltry $8 million needed to fix this problem—blaming the states. I seem to recall Labor being elected on a promise to end the blame game. The Prime Minister could take a leaf out of the former Prime Minister's book. The federal government should be prepared to take responsibility for this problem and just fix it.

This is a critical issue at a time when the shortage of doctors in regional Australia has been estimated to be as high as 1,600 and Health Workforce Australia has predicted a shortage of over 3,000 doctors across the country by 2025. This has been known for some time. That is why the previous coalition government took the policy decision between 2003 and 2006 to increase the number of medical students to the levels we now have. That is what the Chairman of the AMA Rural Medical Committee, Dr David Rivett, said to me in an email this afternoon:

The increase in graduate numbers is a situation government has known of for at least 5 years. There has been ample time to put quality training positions in place in adequate numbers. To not do so spits in the face of rural practitioners and their patients. Ageing docs like me need to see reinforcements and replacements coming over the hill sooner not later or our morale will be obliterated.

Since my question on Monday I have been contacted by hundreds of medical students and doctors from all over Australia. Many of them are watching these proceedings on the internet right now, and I commend them on their campaign and thank them for their support. They are not protesting out of self-interest. More than half of the emails sent to me were from Australian students who are not personally affected by the current crisis. They are speaking out because they want a healthier future for Australia, particularly regional Australia, and they think this government is doing the wrong thing.

I would like to read out some extracts from some of the emails that have been sent to me so that senators, particularly government senators, understand that this is a crisis the health minister needs to wake up to. Dave Townsend is a third-year medical student from the University of New England. He writes:

Time is running out; I am hearing stories of students who are giving up and who are worn out from the fight, so your support gives us hope.

Stas Ulasin is a first-year student at the University of Sydney. He says:

I believe the Australian public deserves to receive a benefit from its investment in the training of students of Australian medical schools by having them actually become practising doctors in Australia.

Karly Abrahams says:

It has been heartbreaking to watch some of my international friends not being able to complete their training after putting in so many years of hard work and developing strong ties with Australia. Keep up the good work!

Blaise Wardell is an international student on the point of graduating and is thus directly affected. He writes:

It is fantastic to know we have some support in parliament, although it was very scary to see the lack of information on the part of the senator representing the health minister.

University of Adelaide student Josh Inglish says he was extremely disappointed that the minister did not understand the issue at hand. He writes:

It is no wonder that this Labor government has managed this issue so poorly.

Zuo Li is a fourth-year student at the University of New South Wales. Zuo says:

Working in Australia is my first choice, especially in the rural areas where more physicians are needed ... I am more than happy to embrace a new environment.

Tuan Bui is a third year medical student at Monash University who would love to stay and contribute to Australia. He says:

It would be a shame if I have to leave just because of the internship shortage.

Aubrey Litvack is a Canadian international senior year medical student from the University of Wollongong currently training in Griffith. She told me this:

I am regularly asked by patients in the hospital emergency department if I plan to stay in Griffith. I dishearteningly have to answer, 'I'd love to, and hope to; but unfortunately there are massive shortages in training positions available that would allow me to stay.'

Rebecca Wood is an Australian in her fifth year at the University of Western Australia. She says:

Thank you for bringing up the issue in the Senate. Even though the point was completely missed, I applaud your efforts to have the issue dealt with.

These are just some of the medical students who have contacted me with their very real and totally understandable concerns.

I would particularly like to congratulate Ben Veness, who is a medical student and Fellow of Senate at the University of Sydney. Ben's future is not at risk, because he is Australian. Yet Ben was the first to contact me about this issue after Monday and has been instrumental in spreading the word through social media. I understand that, as of about 7 o'clock this evening, the campaign by the medical students had achieved more than 14,000 tweets, which have been seen more than 4½ million times on Twitter. I encourage senators to find out more by visiting the Medical Student Action on Training website, We owe it to young men and women like Ben and his cohorts from here and overseas who are committing themselves to a lifetime of helping us here in Australia with health provision when we need it most. How much more evidence does the government need before it addresses and fixes this issue not just for this year but for future years as well? The government needs to wake up to itself and fix this. As I said on Monday, the $8 million needed is only about one-tenth of what Labor spent on its carbon tax compo advertising campaign.

Australia, and regional Australia in particular, just cannot afford to let the government export 80 young doctors at the beginning of their medical careers. One sign at a recent demonstration in Sydney by medical students sums it up perfectly. It read:

Every minute we spend out here, is another minute you spend waiting in the Emergency Department.

There is no excuse for the Labor government not to fix this problem. This is $8 million. It is nothing compared to the waste we have seen from this government. This government has absolutely no excuse but to come out tomorrow and tell all of these students, and people in regional communities that can particularly benefit, that it will stump up the money, it will fix this problem and intern places will be there for international students who need them.