Will Australia’s first private medical school enjoy a happy and healthy birth? Crikey’s resident midwife, Olly Observer, reports that the latest ultrasounds are worrying.

The initial intake was proposed to be about 60 students, 10 from overseas and 50 local students. All students would be fee-paying, with suggested figures such as $20,000 per annum for locals, and $30,000 per annum for overseas students.

This would be a graduate intake – like Sydney, Queensland, and Flinders medical schools. In other words, all of the prospective medical students would already have another degree.

Notre Dame has established a nursing school which is said to be more ‘practical’ than the comparable nursing schools in WA (Curtin University and Edith Cowan). I understand that it is fee paying.

Two local medicos have been appointed as professors: Mark McKenna and Jenny McConnell, and premises in Fremantle have been leased.

The original Notre Dame proposal was for a collaborative project with the University of WA (UWA). However, that public announcement appears not to have been after any consultation (other than very cursory) with UWA. The announcement was presented as a firm and detailed proposal to the public and to the medical community. The ND staff asked for (and received) $1 million to help set up the Medical Course from the careful accountants of Wesfarmers.

Did ND tell Wesfarmers that that this is peanuts compared to the cost of running (never mind setting up) a medical school ?

This is where the excitement starts.

There was much to and fro within the medical community, publicising the ND proposal and committing to a starting date. Subliminal accusations were made that the current medical school (UWA) were ‘not co-operating’.

This appears to have been in advance of a formal detailed request for help/resources from UWA.

Meetings have taken place at the Vice-Chancellorial level. There are now regular working meetings comprising 3 academics each from Notre Dame and UWA and recently ND has tabled some detailed requests.

For ND to get up in 18 months they will be advertising for students within 6 months. They have bought a curriculum ‘off the shelf’ from the University of Queensland – but who will teach them?

Notre Dame put a flyer in the local AMA monthly publication and claims to have had many positive responses form medicos willing to teach in their private rooms.

Who will co-ordinate 60 students?

And, how will the reduced income (because teaching slows down seeing patients) be accounted for?

What about a medical library? Students need access to medical libraries, which do not come cheap.

How will they get experience in areas not seen in the Private System such as emergency medicine? There is one private emergency department, at St John of God Murdoch. However, it is not in the top three Emergency Departments in the State in terms of numbers or the severity of the patients it sees – and can it cope with 60 students?

But there’s more.

Who will do the pre-clinical teaching? (i.e. the lab stuff which does not involve patient contact – anatomy, pathology etc.)

Options canvassed include Curtin (which has schools of pharmacy and physiotherapy) and Murdoch (which has a veterinary school).

At the end of the day, it will almost certainly have to be UWA.

So it seems the only way for Notre Dame to go ahead is for UWA to provide much of the teaching i.e. Notre Dame ‘piggy backs’ on UWA.

This is where it gets very interesting. Because, if there can be no agreement (on cost of money and of staff), whose fault will it be if ND fails to start?

There has been a big sell to some in the community about another medical school. However, ND Medical Faculty infrastructure is small, there are only two teaching staff, and another institution (who has only just received detailed proposals) will be asked to do a very substantial part, if not most, of the teaching.

ND plan to have 60 medical students. This is a substantial undertaking for UWA as it would be about a 50% increase in medical student numbers.

Furthermore, these additional students would be taught (presumably) on a new curriculum – all to be up in February 2004.

Easy – no worries!

So should UWA ‘subsidise’ a graduate medical school at Notre Dame?

Are the proposed ND fees realistic?

Interested observers are waiting for the “blame game” to begin in earnest in the next few months.

The time remaining for ND to get a proposal approved by the Australian Medical Council (who have to approve the curriculum) is short.

The whispering campaign against UWA has been under way for many months.

Notre Dame has excellent connections at the highest level with the Federal Government. Current betting is that UWA will cop the blame for being obstructionist and not allowing ‘a fine and innovative proposal’ to go ahead.

The tragedy is that WA as a state has only one medical school. SA has two despite a smaller population and produces more medical students than WA.

WA needs more medical students to become doctors who will practice in the state.

But where will they come from?

Peter Fray

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