BACKGROUND: Since July 2010, new reporting requirements have applied to registered Australian health practitioners who have a reasonable belief that a practitioner or student (of any registered discipline) is exhibiting "notifiable conduct". A study of healthcare complaints reported that a small number of practitioners are over-represented in the majority of formal complaints brought against doctors. The impetus for conducting this research was a recognition that identifying and responding to particular behaviours early may prevent issues requiring mandatory reporting later on. As a first step, a better understanding of how fitness-to-practice (FTP) concerns are viewed was sought from stakeholders in a rural medical school. METHODS: This qualitative project used purposive and snowballing sampling. Thirteen participants from an Australian rural medical school were interviewed for the study about FTP concerns. Seven were university staff, including clinical educators, program co-ordinators and academic faculty. Six were medical students in the middle of their final year. Their de-identified interview transcripts were independently coded into themes and emergent data categories were refined through comparative analysis between the authors. Data collection ceased after theoretical saturation was achieved. RESULTS: Although students and faculty staff responded similarly in their recognition of FTP concerns, they varied in their assessment of their frequency, with students indicating that concerns were rare. Students and staff expressed reluctance to formally report students or colleagues with FTP concerns because of the complexity and uncertainty of medical practice. Both groups considered early recognition of problems and implementation of supportive mechanisms as important, but students generally did not want to contact the university about concerns for fear of stigmatisation. CONCLUSION: Education providers need to have clear processes for identifying and responding to FTP concerns in the pre-service years of medical training. Importantly, students need to feel that they can seek help for their own concerns and not be stigmatised in doing so. This is a difficult challenge in a profession that has a perceived culture of strength and a traditional hierarchy. Rural medical schools, with their smaller student groups, are well positioned for early response to issues of concern.