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GP Registrars: the lifeblood of rural practice

22 December 2021
For almost 100 years, the medical practice in south-west Queensland town of St George has been serving the community and the surrounding region of up to 250km.

Business Manager Alex and GP and supervisor Dr Karen Benn have run the practice since 2014. It was a change of direction for the couple, with Karen coming from life as a hospital doctor in Brisbane and Alex having managed a cotton and cattle operation.

As well as a commitment to general and preventative health, the practice has a strong focus on the education and training of medical students and registrars. In 2021, two registrars from JCU’s GP Training program joined the St George Medical Practice. Registrars and students help perform an essential role in the provision of care to the town and surrounding communities.

“The GP practice is an important hub providing primary care,” Alex says. “Without it, you’d end up with a flooded emergency department. That’s what we’re seeing in other towns that don’t have a stable general practice. It’s not just put the Band-aid on and ‘see you later’. Our GP registrars know they’re going to see that person again and they will build a relationship. We have an ability to directly improve the health outcomes for our rural communities.”

Over the past 12 months, the St George Medical Centre team has also worked to improve rural health through its outreach clinic in Thallon, 80km south of St George, which has been in operation since early 2020. “Karen provides a general practice clinic once a fortnight,” Alex says. “The idea was brought to us by Thallon community members. Providing a primary health care service to the community, in the community, saves a 160km round trip and increases their ability to access good healthcare.

“We’ve been doing health assessments there recently to gauge the needs of the community. With this information we can report back to the Primary Health Network on the need for increased visiting allied health services. Together we hope to provide a more holistic preventative health service. We are passionate about general practice in remote communities,” Alex says.

Helping the St George Medical Centre maintain and grow their practice is JCU’s Enhanced Rural Training Environment Program (ERTEP). Launched in Cloncurry and now operating in nine additional sites, ERTEP offers funding to support high-quality training and enhance the rural and remote workforce. “The additional support from JCU has taken the pressure off the practice, which has been fantastic. We’re really appreciative of the support for our practice. JCU understand rural and remote practice and are helping us be more competitive to attract registrars,” Alex says.

From seven years of experience in the practice, Alex has seen what generally happens when students and registrars make the trip out and he has a lot to say about why registrars should consider opportunities in communities like St George. “For us, it’s about planting the seed and continuing to water it. When students, locums and registrars come out here, it’s about making it the kind of experience that motivates them to return here. Often in the past training doctors have come out for six months or a year, and then decided to stay on a little longer. They see what a rural practice is like and the broader scope of practice you get as a result of looking after an entire community with limited medical resources.

“Now, the key thing is to combine the scope of practice with really good clinical supervision and I think St George certainly does this well. We have an experienced team of GP supervisors contributing to our registrars’ training and education. There’s a level of collegiality here that I think is quite rare. All of our doctors, across three organisations, get together to meet for lunch on Wednesdays at the hospital, and they’re in contact regularly, calling on each other’s expertise.”

Beyond the clinical training opportunities, the Benns promote the fantastic lifestyle and convenience of St George, saying there is sure to be something students and registrars will enjoy. “Small towns are great. The morning commute for most of our doctors is about three minutes. It’s one song on the radio to anywhere in town, you’re not fighting through traffic. There are other options out here, that’s what I tell our registrars. You don’t have to just do general practice here. A lot of our doctors are studying or doing something else interesting – we’re growing citrus as a side business. Some get quite involved with community events and groups. It’s all part of living in a rural community.”

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