Health careers in remote areas
Sometimes the old adage that good things come to those who wait really does ring true. That is certainly the case for final-year medical student Julia Payne, who was fortunate enough to travel into the remote reaches of the Northern Territory for a four-weeks experience like no other.
Medical students at the University of Melbourne are encouraged to reach out and study in remote settings, so Julia chose to have a clinical placement at the Royal Darwin Hospital. Coincidentally, at a medical conference that she attended last year she entered the ‘Check out my BackYard’ project, which allows her to ‘shadow’ a GP living and working in remote Northern Territory. Julia is one of two students Australia-wide who were chosen by the Northern Territory Health Workforce for the project. Along with the remote medical experience, Julia will develop a short film to help promote careers in rural health.
“The idea behind the film is to give medical students the opportunity to gain an insight into the life of a health professional working and living in a remote part of the Top End, and then the means to share that knowledge and understanding with the wider medical community,” Julia explains.
Fully aware of the tendency of some to focus on problems affecting only urban settings, Julia put her hand up for this experience because she is passionate about medical students understanding the full spectrum of health issues that affect Australians.
“Farmers, miners, fishermen as well as Indigenous people in remote communities all play a part in the creation of our national culture and identity and are a fundamental part of who we are. In medicine we are encouraged to treat the individual – not just the disease – and understanding the culture, concerns and background of all people is important in achieving this and in ultimately making a fundamental contribution to the wellbeing of our nation,” she says.
Julia is also aware of the fact that while Australians tend to be wonderfully active in participating in global efforts to respond to health problems, through such organisations as Medecins Sans Frontieres, there can be a tendency to overlook the fact that the desire to use our skills and training to help others can also be applied to the problems and difficulties faced by those living in the outback.
Tony Wells from Rural Health Workforce explains that ‘Check out my BackYard’ is part of the national ‘Go Rural’ campaign, which aims to attract young doctors and medical students to careers in rural health.
“We want to open people’s eyes to the fantastic professional and lifestyle opportunities for young health professionals in country Australia,” he explains. “The variety of medicine is great, there’s a real sense of community, housing is so much more affordable than the city, and you won’t be stuck in a traffic jam at the end of the day.”
With her interest in rural and remote medicine, Julia was the perfect fit for the program and she has been excited to roll up her sleeves and get involved at a local level in Darwin, also in remote clinics on Elcho Island and around Nhulunbuy.
When she first arrived, her assigned mentor GP, Dr Angela Woltmann, pointed out that the big three areas that need attention are dental health, youth programs to counter high suicide rates and smoking cessation programs, given that 75 to 85 per cent of Aboriginal people in the area are smokers, compared with a national level of 16 per cent.
In her time in the remote communities, Julia has been able to help address these kinds of problems and she believes that her study experiences at the University of Melbourne have made her both aware of and prepared for the variety of challenges that she has faced in the Northern Territory, and that she will no doubt continue to face during her career as a doctor.
“Students are encouraged to be energetic, rigorous, intelligent and fully involved in their approach, and in return the medical school offers an encouraging and supportive environment. The dynamic nature of the medical degree, where students are encouraged to have a broad and rich range of medical experiences, was pivotal to my gaining this opportunity,” she says.
As she approaches the end of her medical course, Julia is still unsure of exactly which area of medicine she wants to specialise in. Her work has not only sent her to the remote Northern Territory, but has also included time in a metropolitan clinical hospital in Melbourne and a research project in Cambridge, UK.