Government policy on financial assistance to medical students discourages medical research
Corey Benjamin Moore BSc (Hons), PhD* |

*Year 1 Medical Student, The Australian National University

The Social Security Act 1991 section 569(2)(b)(i) makes anyone who has completed a “degree of Doctor” ineligible for Austudy. The intention behind this rule is reasonable in that it limits the time taxpayers support an individual’s study. However for Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) training, it is discriminatory, discourages our country’s international medical research competitiveness, and reduces the quality of care that is delivered to individual patients and the community as a whole.

It is discriminatory because students who obtain their MBBS before their Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) are eligible for government support, while those who obtain their PhD before their MBBS are not. In addition, I would argue that it actually makes more practical sense to encourage our future medical doctors to obtain their PhD first, because someone with an MBBS is less likely to subsequently obtain their PhD due to the greater financial loss that they would incur.

It reduces Australia’s international medical research competitiveness by discouraging those with a PhD from obtaining an MBBS, in an area where an MBBS is highly respected. It is generally accepted that researchers with both an MBBS and PhD are more highly regarded than those with only an MBBS, who are more highly regarded than those with a PhD alone. The qualifications of the international leaders in medical research give strong support for this.

It reduces the quality of medical care delivered to individuals and the community as medical doctors need to know the evidence behind their decisions, understand how that evidence was obtained, do their own research if required, and collate all this information in order to make better decisions for their patients and the general public. That is, our medical doctors are expected to have a great understanding and appreciation of research.

Therefore, individuals who already have a PhD are a logical group to choose from to train for their MBBS. This is recognised by most graduate-entry medical schools in Australia that positively encourage applicants to obtain their PhD prior to their MBBS study by preferentially selecting them over those without one. However, the current legislation discourages those with a strong, proven interest and competency in research from becoming our future medical doctors by denying them social security support during their MBBS study. One technical workaround would be for universities to change their policy to allow students to defer their PhD after they have met the requirements to graduate, and to have medical schools recognise this.

I put this information to the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research, Leader of the Government, The Hon Chris Evans. His reply, dated 26 April 2012, was:

“… It has been a long-standing Australian Government policy that student income support should be provided to students in financial need to gain qualifications to enable them to enter the labour market. Those students undertaking further study after completing doctoral degrees do not fulfil this criterion, as they have already been awarded qualifications at the highest level...”

This policy is at odds with most medical schools, in that it discourages individuals with a proven track record of medical research from obtaining their MBBS. This is unjust, reduces Australia’s international competitiveness when it comes to medical research, and ultimately affects the quality of medical care delivered to patients.