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Much more than education

26 August 2021
Rockhampton GP Dr Joan Chamberlain knows a thing or two about being a regional doctor and a supervisor, having overseen hundreds of budding GPs in central Queensland during a career spanning more than three decades. It’s a role she has always relished and one she encourages all she trains to take up one day.

Giving back to the community and to the profession

I have a conscience for my community, and for my profession. I love educating and I love teaching. People did it for me, and I know just how much I appreciated that. It would feel very selfish of me over time to just say ‘well thank you very much for that’ and sit back and do nothing for our next generation.

I think our next generation is really in need of that support. They are struggling with a lot of big changes that probably make it even harder for them than it was for me. I think the least we can do is to give back to assist them to have the sort of profession that I’ve had. There have been very few days in my life where I’ve thought ‘I don’t want to be a doctor today’. I might have been too tired, I might have been too sick, but I never actually wanted to throw in the towel as a doctor. For me to hear of young doctors looking to abandon the profession because they have become too stressed or distressed, or that the expectations have become too much or that the job is not fulfilling when we have such a diverse profession, is really very sad. It’s mortifying. So, I think I became a supervisor to give back that portion that was given to me.

Career long lessons

I see being a supervisor as two roles. As an educator mentor sitting in the surgery, and as a colleague alongside them saying ‘hey this is a good life, but you really need to look after yourself’. We really need to see our function as more than education. If we have survived 30 to 40 years in medicine and still love our job, then our self-care can’t be too bad. That’s something we really need to work on with the registrars we supervise. We need to talk to them about their self-care, putting boundaries and margins in their life, making spaces and working out what feeds them and having a buffer for when things go wrong. It’s the touchy-feely side as well as advice on how to live your life as a doctor, especially in a smaller town where eyes are on you all the time.

By the time registrars come to us they are driven and know what they need to be doing to learn. They’re not kids out of school; they’ve done their medical course and their early years. They know how to learn. What is far more important for us to teach is the socialisation of being a doctor, how to become a GP, how to protect yourself while becoming a GP. The importance of lasting generations, and how not to get disillusioned with medicine.

So, I think the self-care and the socialisation is very important. Teaching registrars how to reinvent and reinvigorate themselves every five years if they need to, is probably more important than teaching them to know medicine.

Thriving in a small town

In a larger city you can escape being a GP when you leave the clinic, but in a smaller town it’s not like that. Everybody knows where you live, what is going on with you. It’s inescapable to be known as the GP in the town or one of the GPs in the town 24/7. You can’t even go out to dinner without people recognising you. We need to talk to our registrars about how to manage this exposure.

But there are times when registrars feel too embarrassed to discuss their concerns, especially in a town where the GP is held on a pedestal. The onus is on us, as the supervisor, to sit down and say

‘look you may be feeling quite exposed here, you might be feeling vulnerable. Is this a concern for you, or your partner?’ Some people can feel very overwhelmed and it may never occur to them that their supervisor may also have felt that when they started, and even now if they’re having a bad day and they have to have that public face for the community, but privately inside they’re thinking ‘I would love to live somewhere where no one would talk to me for a day’. I think we must be honest with registrars about that.

The rewards

Supervising is an extremely rewarding role for many reasons. Once a new registrar was supposed to be starting with me, and her partner was killed in an accident. The first six months of me being her supervisor was us sitting and crying together for half an hour before work some days. Taking her to do the viewing of her partner was difficult for both of us. Looking back, you realise that as hard as it was, being able to be there and support her was so very important.

It’s also rewarding when you’ve had someone struggling when they came to you and six months later you hear they’ve passed their exam first go, or having someone sit down and say ‘I really enjoyed my sessions, thank you’, or they go away and pursue their own field or set up their own practice. When you start reading their name in the paper and think, ‘hey they were one of my registrars and now they’re taking on a leadership role in the RACGP, or their local community or hospital’. Even just hearing from other people about how much their GP is liked and respected and you know they were once your registrar, and you think ‘I hope I was able to help develop part of that’.

Encouraging supervisors of the future

I always try to encourage registrars in our practice to start taking on that supervisory role when we get medical students, or when we have more junior registrars, so they’re already starting to see it from the other side. We get them to do a bit of teaching, presenting or participating in surgery activities so they start to see themselves in more senior roles as a colleague. We want them to be available and prepared to take on those supervisory and leadership roles even if it’s not on paper. I think it’s a great thing and try to encourage all our registrars to think that way.

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