'Surprising' Study Finds Junior Doctors Working In Rural Areas Are Happier Than Their City Counterparts

A better work-life balance and more variety on the job are just some of the reasons young doctors in Australia's regional and rural areas are more satisfied than their metropolitan counterparts, a new study has found.

Research out of the University of New South Wales has found that regional and city doctors worked similar hours and their overall work satisfaction rates both sit at about 85 percent, but a host of other contributing factors means rural doctors are ultimately 54 percent more likely to be satisfied.

The study, which looked at more than 4500 non-specialist doctors in their first four years of work, found that rural junior doctors were given more opportunities to work on procedures and were more likely to be placed in decision-making roles than their city-based counterparts.

Lead researcher Dr Matthew Lennon said the team also believed rural and regional-based young doctors enjoyed the benefits of reduced costs of living and travel times as well as the proximity of activities like pools and gyms.

Dr Matthew Lennon. Image: UNSW/Supplied.

"I was surprised by some of the particular findings in there but I think overall the people who work in rural hospitals as junior doctors have chosen to be there and it turns out that a lot of them are really happy," Lennon told 10 daily.

Born and raised in Sydney, Lennon first worked at Wagga Wagga's base hospital in the NSW Riverina Region during a placement as a second-year medical student at UNSW.

Now 25, Lennon returned to Wagga two years ago with his wife and the pair have since started a family there, welcoming their first child four months ago.

Lennon said the study highlighted that the biggest struggle recruiters face in attracting young doctors was not only their own separation from their families and friends but their partners' separation as well.

"We know doctors are generally married or in relationships with other professionals and it can be really difficult, particularly in remote towns but even in regional towns like Tamworth and Wagga Wagga to find an appropriate placement for partners as well," he said.

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Lennon and his partner, whose family is from Geelong in Victoria, initially struggled in the first months after their daughter's birth without family around them.

"It was such a difficult time because she wouldn't sleep and she would cry a lot," he said.

"The way we got through it was just making friends in the community and people really came out of the woodwork and we had so many frozen meals and support, people really pitched in."

"It's a wonderful community and people really look out for one another."

Image: Supplied.

The UNSW study hoped to pinpoint the benefits and drawbacks of rural practice, in order to boost recruitment of junior doctors in regional and remote areas.

To date, the demand for rural GPs has been largely met by immigrant doctors who are required to practice in rural areas for up to 10 years. Currently around  40 percent of GPs in rural Australia are trained overseas.

President of the Rural Doctors Association of Australia, Dr Adam Coltzau said rural hospitals still have more difficulty attracting and retaining doctors for a number of reasons.

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He said while most rural doctors really enjoy their work because of its variety, they find isolation from friends, family, and entertainment to be an issue.

Coltzau told 10 daily that rural doctors benefit from having more autonomy and decision-making than their metropolitan counterparts.

"You get to do more procedural work and more operations," he said. 

"That keeps life interesting and makes the job more fulfilling."

Image: Getty

The new research comes just a month after a study from James Cook University which surveyed students at northern Australian regional hospitals found that those students felt they had better learning experiences and were more encouraged to follow a medical career outside of major cities in the future.

At the time, Dr Torres Woolley, senior lecturer at JCU’s College of Medicine and Dentistry who led the study, said staff at regional hospitals had a reputation among students of taking a greater interest in teaching and there was a better staff-to-student ratio.

“What was especially encouraging is that we found that providing students with experience in regional healthcare significantly increased nearly all students’ intentions to pursue a rural career,” Woolley said in September.

Image: Getty

Coltzau said medical students who come from a rural background are more likely to go back to rural areas to work after their university placements.

"People coming from rural areas have a particular expectation of their life... being from a rural area before means they're more likely to go back after medical school."

Coltzau said having exposure to rural work as a medical student is really important and allows people to see whether rural or remote work is suited for them.

"Until you try it and are exposed to it in medical school you don't know if it's better than city-based practice."

He believes technology is also helping to address some of the challenges that turn people away from working as rural or regional doctors, such as spousal appointments.

"If your significant other does a very specialised particular type of job and they can't get work there we are overcoming a lot of that with things like virtual offices," he explained.

Technology is also being used to help doctors themselves who may be feeling isolated because often they can face big procedures alone.

"Using the help or backup from city specialists available via video link can really be supportive for someone who is in a rural spot by themselves or with very little backup or support."

Image: Getty

Coltzau said he understands choosing to work rurally is a big decision for young doctors, but says more and more universities are making rural placements compulsory to help young people get a taste of what life would be like.

As a young medical student in Queensland, Coltzau was also sent rurally to the town of St George which he had never heard of before.

"I didn't know how my car was going to get that far west as a student," he joked.

"But I ended up back in the same town that I'd never heard of as a medical student and I've now been practicing there for the last 17 years."

Featured Image: Getty

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