Introduction: Authentic early experience in clinical contexts adds interest and relevance to basic medical education, and is regarded positively by both learners and teachers. However, with the recent expansion of medical education, the healthcare system appears close to reaching its capacity for student supervision. This study explores the utilisation of the healthcare system for early clinical placements.

Methods: A secondary analysis was conducted of data from the Medical Schools Outcomes Database, collected from the 2010 annual questionnaire, focusing on the timing, duration and location of clinical placements during 2009 within the first half of basic medical education programs in Australia.

Results: Data was received for 67% of Australian medical students, reporting a total of 16 812 early clinical placements that occupied 97 319 days of supervised time in a wide variety of hospital, general practice and Indigenous health contexts, both urban and rural, across the Australian healthcare system. These early placements occupied about 16% of total clinical placement time for all students in all training years during 2009. The majority of these placements were for only a few hours or days; exceptions were longitudinal placements in regional and rural communities at a minority of schools.

Conclusion: Early clinical placements may pose significant resource costs for placement providers, particularly supervision time and expertise. As medical education expands and the teaching capacity of the Australian healthcare system appears to reach its limits, it may be necessary to allocate placements according to their specific learning outcomes, prioritise more acute settings for more senior students, and increase capacity in less acute health and social care settings.