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Written By

Andrew Cramb

College of Medicine and Dentistry

Publish Date

1 March 2023

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Following in the footsteps of Far North First-Years

An exciting new chapter has begun for JCU and for the students who are part of the inaugural cohort starting their studies for a Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery in Cairns this year.

The expansion marks the commencement of an ‘end-to-end’ medicine program offered in Cairns. The 2023 first-year cohort, and future intakes, join fourth to sixth-year students undertaking their clinical training based in Cairns.

JCU College of Medicine and Dentistry Dean, Professor Richard Murray says the development provides access to medical training for students from a diverse range of backgrounds and regions, including applicants who may have previously considered pursuing a medical career unattainable.

“One in three students in our new MBBS1 Cairns cohort are the first in their family to go to university and from a regional, rural or remote area,” Prof Murray says. “Almost two-thirds of this cohort are coming to us from outside a metropolitan area.”

“That is what it’s all about for us. It’s the base of our entire model: selecting students from our regions and then educating and training them in, with and for the communities that need them most as graduates. It’s our strategy, it’s been effective, and it’s backed by national and international evidence,” Professor Murray says.

The new cohort commenced their first semester at the end of February and have been supported and welcomed by an academic team, chiefly Associate Professor Julie Mudd, as well as clinical-years students and JCU alumnus.

To celebrate the launch of the expanded medicine program, JCU held a welcome event at its tropical Nguma-bada campus in Smithfield, Cairns on Wednesday 1 March. JCU’s Vice Chancellor and President Professor Simon Biggs and key stakeholders across community, industry and government marked the occasion, together with the new cohort, academic team and some of the first JCU medical graduates from 2005.

Some of past and present medical students, along with A/Prof Julie Mudd shared their thoughts on what the expanded medical program means for the Far North’s aspiring doctors and the health of its communities.

JCU Medicine 2005 graduates in Cairns, L to R: Dr Hannah Rutherford, Dr Merodia Rodgers, Dr Cameron Downes, Dr Daniel Gileppa and Dr Aileen Traves

Passing of the baton from one first-year cohort to another.

The development of a full medicine program in Cairns has been warmly welcomed by the Far North Queensland community. Among those most excited for the expansion of the JCU program are Cairns-based doctors from JCU's first cohort when the JCU School of Medicine commenced in 2000.

Part of this inaugural cohort, Dr Aileen Traves made the move from Canberra to Townsville to pursue her medical career, and she never looked back. After completing her clinical years in Cairns, she chose to stay in the regional centre for internship and beyond.  Now, she continues to serve the community as a GP, while helping equip the next generation of doctors as a JCU Senior Lecturer for the MBBS4-6-year students.

“We are very excited to have first years here," Dr Traves says. "As a medical training ground, Cairns is very well-placed to provide these students with a hands-on and supportive learning experience. You have these incredible local GPs who have been taking on JCU medical students for placements every year since the program began in the early 2000s.

“As a JCU Medicine alumnus, it's a network that lasts forever, and I'm sure that it'll be the same for this new cohort. It’s a good size group and they’ll stay connected as a supportive network even after graduation, no matter where they go,” Dr Traves says.

Based on her experience, Dr Traves knows that the Cairns expansion of the JCU Medicine program will translate to more doctors staying in the region to help meet the health care needs of underserved communities.

“If you train people here, they are more likely to stay,” Dr Traves says. “There are a lot of people who are here because that’s where they trained. And you see this happening across our whole region. The more that new students like this cohort come through and get to meet these doctors, and train and work together as students and alumni, the more we can build on our medical workforce.”

JCU’s high-quality, supportive medical training experience; with a Cairns twist.

North Queensland clinician and JCU Associate Professor, Dr Julie Mudd, is the Academic Lead, Foundational Studies for the expanded JCU Medicine program in Cairns.

A/Prof Mudd is ensuring that the foundational years of teaching will make the most of the clinical and research expertise residing at the JCU Nguma-bada campus in Smithfield, where the first years will be based.

“We've got great clinical teachers throughout Cairns and fantastic scientists here so we’re bringing in more expertise and expanding the knowledge base. For students, it will mean access to new research and elective opportunities,” A/Prof Mudd says.

A/Prof Mudd has been reviewing the first-year program students are undertaking in Cairns.

“It’s the same JCU medical program and the same curriculum that has been so successful in producing a work-ready medical workforce for regional, rural and remote Australia. The only difference is that hopefully over time it will develop a distinctive Cairns flavour to our little cohort that will help to reflect the uniqueness of the region!”

“I'm very keen to make sure that we have an equitable program here so it might be that there are some aspects that need to be changed slightly because of the difference in cohort size or because of the difference in location,” A/Prof Mudd says.

One of the ways the Cairns-based program will ensure an equitable and engaging learning experience will be through the involvement of senior students in guiding and mentoring the first-year cohort.

“We’ll be drawing on the experiences of our later-year students, and in doing so, giving them experience in clinical teaching. That’s important for anyone pursuing a career in medicine because a lot of the structure of medicine involves teaching those who are coming up through the ranks behind you,” A/Prof Mudd says.

Back row: CMD Dean Prof Richard Murray, Dr Caroline Yates, Dr Merodia Rodgers, Dr Nathan Walmsley, Dr Aileen Traves and JCU VC and President Prof Simon Biggs. Front Row: First year students Chris Messina, Harrison Plasto, Charlotte Reisinger and Sophie Christoffelsz

Cairns locals eager to join the Far North’s medical workforce.

The new Cairns first-year cohort is providing the opportunity for locals to pursue medical careers closer to home. Of the approximately 40 new students, 13 are from the Cairns region and a further eight are from across northern Queensland.

Chris Messina is a fourth-generation Cairns local whose entry into medicine has been twenty years in the making. After considering medical training after high school, Chris opted instead for biomedicine before switching to pharmacy in Brisbane. Since then he's owned and operated community pharmacies in Brisbane and the Far North and spent the past three years in Cairns running his own business in diabetes management and education.

When JCU announced that medicine foundational years were coming to Cairns, Chris’s wife immediately encouraged him to seize the opportunity.

“It was an itch that never went away, and I don’t think I wanted that desire to go away. It’s such a great opportunity and it’s just fantastic that it’s now in Cairns. We love living here and the family are really settled, so to not have to move is unbelievable,” Chris says.

Chris says he’s excited for taking the next step in his health career. His main passion for medicine comes in the level of continuity of care with patients that the role provides.

“As a doctor, particularly as a GP, you have this incredible capacity to support patients through their life journey. That's what I was really wanting. I get great joy from engaging with people as both a pharmacist and a diabetes educator, but these roles have limits on the continuity of care you can provide. I am excited to enter into medicine to improve my capacity and knowledge to provide patient-centred care to the best of my abilities,” Chris says.

Like many of JCU’s medical students, Chris has his eyes firmly set on a career in rural generalism.

“I think rural generalism would be a great specialty for me. Rural health has always held appeal, which is why it was always going to be JCU for me; they’re the leaders in that regard. My wife and I regularly talk about going more remote once the kids are a bit older. She’s a pharmacist and between the two of us I think we could provide a lot of benefit to the health of a rural or remote community in the Far North," Chris says.

Chris Messina (Top row, second from left) with fellow first-years at an O Week campus activity

A brighter future for the health of Northern Queensland

Further improving access to medical education are bursary and scholarship opportunities offered to JCU students, like The Balnaves Foundation Indigenous Medical Scholarship. The new scholarship will support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students studying medicine at JCU’s Nguma-bada campus in Cairns, commencing in first year and continuing through the six years of their degree.

The Balnaves Foundation is a private philanthropic organisation established in 2006 by Neil Balnaves AO. Neil’s vision for the Foundation was to make a significant and lasting impact for Australia. Continuing to build on Neil’s legacy, the Foundation supports organisations that create a better Australia through education, medicine and the arts with a focus on young people, the disadvantaged and Indigenous Australians.

The expansion of the JCU Medicine program is providing greater access to medical education and is a win for all North Queensland. JCU is grateful for the support that led to the allocation of 20 Commonwealth Supported Places, making this possible.

You can find out more about the expansion and what it will mean for future doctors and communities of North Queensland.

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