GP-obstetrician Clare Hardie holding one of her patients in Narrogin
Clare Hardie is the only GP-obstetrician in a remote agricultural community of 5000 people. Image by HANDOUT/UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME
  • health

Doctor wants a farmer: love keeps medics in the bush

Stephanie Gardiner June 22, 2024

When Clare Hardie was in her third year of medical school, she fell in love with a sheep farmer.

Dr Hardie, a GP-obstetrician, was doing a clinical placement in Narrogin in Western Australia’s wheatbelt in 2015, a move that changed the course of her life and career.

“I met a fella who is going to live rurally for the rest of his life, so I guess I’m stuck in Narrogin,” she jokes.

She is the only GP-obstetrician in the agricultural centre of 5000, working beside locum and junior doctors to keep the rural maternity service running.

It’s a rewarding job that keeps her busy, along with farm life and raising two young sons.

“You deliver babies, then you see them growing up in the community and treat them as toddlers,” Dr Hardie told AAP.

“That’s a journey that’s only going to get longer.”

With her specialist skills and connection to the country Dr Hardie is a dream for a rural town, as doctor shortages grip regional Australia and force the closure of many maternity units.

A first-of-its-kind study confirms exposing doctors to rural practice in their early years – before they’ve made big decisions about marriage, mortgages and family – is crucial to keeping medics in the bush.

The research followed 1220 medical graduates from nine Australian universities to track where they were working five, eight and 10 years after graduation.

GPs were nearly three times more likely to be practising outside the cities after a decade, as the specialty has greater rural training opportunities.

The majority – or 71 per cent – of GPs who were in rural areas five years after graduation remained there at 10 years, according to the research published in BMJ Open.

It’s known that doctors raised in the country or those who study rurally are more likely to stay in the regions but the research showed their work location at five years was also a powerful influence.

“Imagine you’re a rural doctor … you join the footy team and you find a partner, you’ll stay rural,” said lead author Alexa Seal, from the University of Notre Dame in Wagga Wagga. 

“But if you have to move to a metro area for training … and you meet somebody and start a life together, to move back to rural you’d have to think about their job and opportunities for your kids.

“All those issues can cause a loss of connection to rural.”

Only 10 per cent of other specialists, like pediatricians and psychiatrists, and 15 per cent of surgeons ended up working in regional areas a decade after graduation.

That was likely because much of their training was city-based.

Dr Seal said it was important to offer doctors an immersive rural experience, a notion being explored by both the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons and the Royal Australian College of Physicians.

“It promotes retention and connection with rural areas so you don’t lose them because of metro-based training restrictions,” she said.

Dr Hardie said there needed to be clear and supported pathways to rural work.

“People in the city are making decisions that can have significant impacts on rural and remote populations.”