Australia

International medical students eager to join new plan to bolster coronavirus health workforce in NSW

International medical student Alyssa Chong says she's excited to help alleviate some of the burden on the healthcare sector during the COVID-19 crisis. Source: Supplied

New South Wales has followed in the footsteps of Victoria and launched a scheme to recruit final-year medical students to assist with the COVID-19 response.

University students will be used to bolster the New South Wales' health workforce amid fears the system could be overrun with an influx of coronavirus cases. 

The initiative follows a similar scheme which was introduced in Victoria just last week.

State health authorities told SBS News they would work with universities to identify final year medical students that could help "boost the medical workforce" on an opt-in basis, freeing up resources to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Students hired in the paid, part-time "assistant in medicine" roles would be expected to help with admissions, discharges, organising tests and consultations, and some procedures - but would not be directly involved in treating critical coronavirus patients.

An email calling for expressions of interest for the positions was sent to final-year medicine students at the University of Sydney on Monday, explaining that students would not be working in critical care units like the ICU or designated COVID-19 wards.

President of the NSW Medical Students' Council, Alice Shen, says students are excited to help reduce the healthcare burden during the coronavirus pandemic.
President of the NSW Medical Students' Council, Alice Shen, says students are excited to help reduce the healthcare burden during the coronavirus pandemic.
Supplied

President of the NSW Medical Students' Council, Alice Shen, told SBS News that medical students were eager to help reduce the stress on the healthcare system.

"They are excited to use their skill set that they've been honing throughout their medical education and apply it," the University of Western Sydney student said.

"Provided that these positions allow them to practice within their scope, they have adequate supervision and support and they're protected in terms of safety and working entitlements afforded to other healthcare professionals at the forefront of the national battle." 

The new roles may also go some way in replacing income for many university students who have lost their part-time or casual roles as a result of the crisis, she added.

Among those eager to contribute are international students who have been given the green light to apply for the positions inline with their visa criteria, which currently allows them to work 20 hours per week.

Alyssa Chong, an international student from Singapore who studies at the University of Newcastle, told SBS News she was "really excited" to be given the opportunity to help, but expressed concern that the limit on the hours she's allowed to work would make it difficult for her to fully participate.

"I am really excited, as an international student, to be provided with this opportunity, it is an honour to be able to help contribute to the current crisis, and work closely alongside fellow healthcare staff and lessen their burden," she said.

"As a final year medical student, the role would not be too different from what I currently do during my Medicine rotation. Helping out with various job tasks, in order to alleviate the workload of the team."

Staff wearing face masks outside the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Camperdown, Sydney.
Staff wearing face masks outside the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Camperdown, Sydney.
AAP

Last month, the federal government lifted restrictions on the working hours of international students in a bid to increase staffing in the aged care sector.

International students working at supermarkets have also been allowed to temporarily extend their hours, with acting immigration minister Alan Tudge flagging that there is a possibility the measures might be extended to other industries as required

Ms Chong hopes similar easing of restrictions will be considered for international medical students.

"If we are only allowed to work 20 hours per week, as opposed to the 32 hours that has been outlined but still under progress, it will affect the number of shifts that international students will be able to take up," she said.

The University of Melbourne has been accepting expressions of interest for a similar Victorian government scheme since Friday, The Age reported earlier this week, with more than a thousand students rushing to sign up.

In a statement to SBS News on Tuesday, Victorian health authorities said: "students, including medical students, will be an important part of the health workforce response to COVID-19."

"A skills matrix has been developed for the three student professions (medical, nursing and allied health) which will also guide the engagement of medical students," the spokesperson said.

There are more than 5,700 medical students across nine schools in the NSW and the Australian Capital Territory, According to the NSW Medical Students' Council.

A NSW Health spokesperson said only final year medical students who have been "assessed as having the skills and capabilities to undertake the role" will be employed in the roles.

As of Wednesday afternoon, 4,860 COVID-19 cases have been diagnosed in Australia, including 21 deaths. 

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus.

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