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An ‘accidental love’ and a much-needed boost to Outback health care

11 April 2022

The bustling Mount Isa Medical Centre plays a crucial role in providing primary care to the outback communities in and around Mount Isa. The largest of the town's GP clinics, the centre has over 9,000 active patients, with some travelling up to 300km to receive care. At the helm is the Practice Manager and Principal GP, Dr Michael Mbaogu. He’s got a clear passion for rural medicine, a love which he says came about quite by accident.

Beginning his medical education in his home country of Nigeria before moving to the UK for GP Training, it was working in Scotland that Dr Mbaogu had his first exposure to rural medicine. He went on to work in rural Canada and Western Australia before making his way to Mount Isa in 2013.

“The love for rural medicine is, I think, accidental because I'm actually a city boy by upbringing. But as soon as I got exposure to it, I loved it from day one,” Dr Mbaogu says. “You can see you're needed in a rural community and you're making a big difference to the people there. Professionally, you get to do a range of things in terms of scope of practice and procedure.”

Coming into Mount Isa, Dr Mbaogu admits his first impressions left him somewhat unsure. With the dusty landscape, dry riverbeds and ‘big chimney’ of the Mount Isa Mine stack greeting him on entry to the city, his first thoughts were ‘oh, okay, let’s see how this goes?’ But he and his family quickly made themselves at home.

“We’re really happy here. Mount Isa grows on you. I have patients who have been here for 50 years, and they were just ‘passing through’ or they had a six-month plan that ended up being a 50-year plan!”

The Mount Isa Medical Centre is open seven days and alongside offering general practice care and minor procedures, it is running COVID-19 testing and vaccination facilities. The centre has four permanent doctors, including Dr Mbaogu himself, three part-time doctors, and as of this year, three JCU GP registrars.

“We have over 15,000 patients in our books, over 9,000 of which are active patients, meaning they’ve been to our practice at least three times in the past two years (keep in mind that Mount Isa’s total population is about 20,0000!). We’ve got patients regularly coming from Cloncurry and out to Boulia, which is a three-hour drive. We’re reaching a large area of the Northwest.”

Despite the size of the Mount Isa Medical Centre, like many clinics across rural Queensland, it too is feeling the impact of a GP shortage in rural Queensland. The Modified Monash Model is a system that classifies the remoteness of a location, with Mount Isa rating 6 out of 7.

“If I had five extra doctors walk in the door right now, they’d be fully booked from today going forward for months. That’s the scale of the shortage of doctors in town.

“If you look at the bookings, the waiting list to see me is over two weeks. That is not acceptable. Long wait times aren’t good for patients or the system. Patients are resorting to going to the emergency department, which adds pressure on the hospital,” Dr Mbaogu says.

Dr Mbaogu has warmly welcomed the three JCU GP registrars who will rotate between the Mount Isa Medical Centre and the town’s hospital. He says it’s encouraging to have GP registrars who see the patient need in the outback and are willing to make the move.

“We’re here for the aspiring GPs. As a supervisor, it’s a role I take very seriously. I try to get to know my registrars, to find out their educational needs and their interests to tailor learning plans based on them as an individual,” Dr Mbaogu says.

One of the new registrars is Dr Bibhusana Borthakur. Hailing from Canada, she completed her medical degree in Brisbane and chose to pursue GP training in Mount Isa because of the positive feedback from other students and doctors.

“Everyone who has come here, whether it’s medical students or as registrars, they’ve loved the experience,” Dr Borthakur says. “It’s such a remote area and we don’t have access to all specialties here so you learn to manage things yourself, there’s a real variety to the medicine here."

“It’s been a really good experience so far. JCU GP training offers a lot of resources we can access as registrars. Dr Mbaogu has been really helpful, giving me a full orientation and daily education sessions. At this stage, I am keen to specialise in either Indigenous health or mental health, or both. My training will be around three years, and I’ll try to spend all of it here if I can!”

For Dr Mbaogu, as much as he used to be a ‘city boy’, he’s now completely sold on rural life and has no plans to leave Mount Isa.

“I would never live in a city again. What I’ve experienced over the last 20 years in rural communities, you don’t get that in cities. I remember living in London, and everyone was in a hurry, they didn’t have time for you. In a rural setting, people will stop and say hello, be it in Scotland, Canada, or Australia. If you're not careful, you’ll be stopping to chat for a long time!”

To junior doctors and GP registrars considering their options in training location, Dr Mbaogu encourages them to step outside their comfort zone and consider a place like Mount Isa.

“I think that the quality of life is a lot better in rural areas than inner cities. It often comes down to what you’re used to, and some people only know big city life. They don't know what's out there in rural areas and what they’re missing out on. That was obviously the case for me,” Dr Mbaogu says.

Applications for the 2023 second intake open from 1 August 2022. Be there for a community that needs you. Start your GP training journey with JCU

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