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18 March 2020


South Australian Senator Rex Patrick has called on Australian Governments and universities to move urgently to mobilise medical and nursing students to form an auxiliary health workforce to reinforce what will be hard-pressed hospitals and clinics when coronavirus infections peak in Australia. 

“The nation’s leading medical authorities have spoken with increasing candour about the likely spread of the coronavirus in Australia’s population and the great strain this will place on our hospitals, clinics and medical services generally.”

“This health challenge has been likened to that of a major war, and some credible projections suggest that the human toll could potentially exceed Australian fatalities in the two World Wars of the 20th Century."

“It’s vital that we implement effective social distancing to flatten the curve of the epidemic. We also need to boost our medical resources in every way possible.”

“This is the equivalent of a wartime situation. We need a much bigger medical and nursing army and mobilisation of our reserve forces needs to get underway right now if they are to be ready for deployment when the crunch comes.”  

“While much medical planning and work is underway, it appears that the full implications for Australia’s health workforce have not yet been fully considered, even as the virus moves into sustained community transmission and exponential growth.”

“Earlier this week it was reported in the media that the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services has been contacting university medical department staff to seek qualified medical personnel to volunteer their services, and was pleased to have received some 40 positive responses.”

“The experience of China, South Korea and Italy suggests that a vastly greater reinforcement of the health workforce will be required. Tens of thousands of medical and nursing volunteers from all over China were sent into Hubei Province, the epicentre of the epidemic. Thousands of medical and nursing students were mobilised to perform less technically demanding but important roles to free up fully qualified medical staff to focus on patients with the greatest needs.” 

“Other countries are looking at radical ways to rapidly boost their health workforces to cope with a tsunami of coronavirus cases.  Italy is rushing some 10,000 final year medical students into service. The United Kingdom’s National Health Service is reported to be looking at mobilising final year university nursing students to receive temporary accreditation to join the paid nursing workforce, and to enlist thousands of other volunteers to help out in support roles in hospitals, nursing homes and community centres.” 

“While the Australian Governments are already moving to boost our health workforce, including moving qualified medical and nursing professionals from administrative to front-line roles, they should not overlook the considerable potential reserve force of more than some 60,000 Australian nursing students,14,000 Australian medical students and over 2000 Australian dental students.”

“The most recently published statistics indicate that approximately 12,000 student nurses, 3,000 student doctors and 500 student dentists are in the final year of their training.”

“There are also overseas medical, nursing and dentistry students studying at our universities – although the current figures are unclear owing to the current disruption of enrolments.”

“This is a very significant pool of personnel who, while not fully trained, could play an invaluable role in supplementing the work of our fully qualified medical professionals who are likely to very hard pressed in the months to come.”

“Many of our large hospitals are stretched by the winter flu season, and shortages of doctors and nurses are common across hospitals and clinics throughout regional Australia. Reinforcements will be needed across the country.”  

“Student doctors and nurses can be quickly trained to record patient details, take temperatures, assist patients on entry to fever clinics and uphold infection control protocols including management of personnel protective equipment. China’s recent experience shows this can be a great help.” 

“I would expect that a large number of student doctors, nurses and dentists will be very prepared to step forward as volunteers, either full-time or part-time," Senator Patrick said. “Their commitment to public service is clear, but it would also be appropriate for their efforts to be renumerated and their contribution to be recognised by their universities.”

“However mobilising even a portion of our medical and nursing students to work as temporary staff at hospitals and clinics will require urgent collaboration between federal and state authorities, universities, the medical and nursing professional associations and relevant unions.  The educational, administrative, logistic, financial and regulatory issues are not insignificant, and for precisely that reason, planning and preparations need to start immediately if we are to have an auxiliary force that can be deployed in time.” 

“Australia’s universities are understandably focussed on the impact of the coronavirus on the health and welfare of their students, student enrolments and education, and the likelihood of campus closures.  At the same time, however, they should be seeking to maximise the assistance they and their students can deliver to the wider community.” 

“The rapid mobilisation of medical and nursing reserves would be a highly important contribution.”