The 62 students, including three from New Zealand, nine from inter-State, and many from rural areas, comprise the "pioneer" cohort in UNE's School of Rural Medicine. The new School is the UNE component of the Joint Medical Program, run in collaboration with the University of Newcastle (UN) and Hunter New England Health (HNEH). This is the program's first year of teaching, with 100 students enrolled at Newcastle as well as the 62 at UNE.
Early on the first day before teaching began, the students were welcomed to the program by Professor John Fraser (Head of the School of Rural Medicine at UNE), Professor Alan Pettigrew (Vice-Chancellor of UNE), Professor Victor Minichiello (Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of the Faculty of the Professions at UNE), Professor Michael Hensley from the University of Newcastle (Dean of Medicine – Joint Medical Program), and Dr Nigel Lyons (Chief Executive of HNEH).
All the speakers emphasised the importance of the Joint Medical Program for the future recruitment and retention of medical practitioners in northern NSW (as well as other non-metropolitan regions), and its significance as the first collaborative venture of its kind in Australia.
"It's been very much a team effort," Professor Fraser said.
They also emphasised the scale of the achievement in turning what was a mere concept only two years ago into a reality, and thanked everyone involved. Professor Pettigrew remarked on the prevailing "sense of achievement" among the staff and "sense of excitement" among the students.
Professor Hensley thanked the students for "embarking on this career from which the community expects such a lot", and encouraged them to go on and "graduate at the end of 2012 as outstanding doctors".
He pointed out that, under the system of "problem-based learning" that UN had developed for its medical degree course more than three decades ago and now shared with UNE, students were required "to be doctors from day one". This teaching method requires students, working in teams of eight, to analyse and solve problems presented to them by a tutor. Dr Lyons, who was among the fourth intake of medical students at UN, told the students that "problem-based learning" would give them "skills that will last for life".
The students themselves were unanimous in their enthusiasm for the program. Daniel Tilley from Foster in Victoria and Emily Lewis from Adelaide were typical of many in welcoming this opportunity to train for medical practice in a rural area. They were also excited about what lay before them over the next five years. "We've got this brand new, amazing anatomy lab," Emily said, "and I'm excited about going there later today."