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Finding a calling as a regional GP
For Dr Ed Stark, getting good grades in high school meant you were destined for a career in medicine, and so he was channelled into the profession. Now, this 'accidental doctor' has become one very intentional general practitioner. He has dedicated the last twenty years of his life to improving the health of the Atherton community in Far North Queensland.
Dr Stark didn’t intend to pursue a career in general practice when he began medical school at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom.
“When I was in high school, I was sort of channelled into a career in medicine,” Dr Stark says. “That’s generally what happened if you achieved good grades. But as I went through medical school, and through my training, it became apparent to me that general practice was a career I would find rewarding. I’ve enjoyed being a GP immensely and I am very glad that it’s what I do now.”
Dr Stark is part of a team of GPs working in the Alice Street Medical Centre, serving the community of Atherton and its surroundings. From his experience, there are a few questions you can ask yourself to help determine whether a career as a regional GP is right for you…
Are you good at puzzles?
GPs learn to be great problem-solvers. With a tricky-to-diagnose patient, your role as GP becomes part doctor and part detective. Dr Stark relishes the challenge and variety that comes with being the primary care physician for his patients and when he is faced with a variety of conditions and puzzling symptoms.
“Patients will rarely present with the textbook diagnosis. They often have a whole heap of symptoms that can be difficult to work out. Over time you will hone your clinical reasoning skills and the ability to get to what’s really going on. I enjoy the challenge. There is never a dull day because you never know what’s going to walk through the door. It’s like a puzzle and it is a really rewarding process,” Dr Stark said.
“The variety and challenge are what drew me to a career in general practice. As a GP, I get to use my knowledge and skills and experience on a day-to-day basis to help improve people’s quality of life.”
Do you consider yourself a people person?
Relationships. It’s the first word that comes to mind for many GPs when you ask them what they love most about their job. By the nature of the role, GPs can often build a deeper, more permanent relationship with patients compared to doctors from other specialties. These relationships can be rewarding for the doctor and beneficial to the patient’s health, forming a core component of continuity of care.
“When you're a doctor, perhaps working in a hospital emergency department, you see your patients, then they're discharged, and you don't see them again. As a GP, you have a privileged insight into a lot of things about your patient and where they’re at in their life. You’re working with them to ensure the best outcome. To do this well, you have to have good communication skills; you have to get on with people and you have to be able to read people.” Dr Stark says.
Continuity of care is a core element of general practice, and there is a growing body of evidence that points to the value of the ongoing contact of patient and doctor over time. Continuity of care has shown to result in greater patient satisfaction, increased treatment adherence and improved patient outcomes.
“That continuity of care is very important to me in general practice as you do get to know your patients. That relationship and understanding help you in your job to work out what's really going on,” Dr Stark says.
Is job satisfaction an important factor for you?
The diversity and flexibility of the role and the relationship with patients combine to make the general practitioner a deeply rewarding and enriching role. Nine out of 10 GPs report being satisfied, or very satisfied, with their work. It’s a figure that has remained consistently high over time. 
“I think it’s different to many other fields in medicine, due to the interaction with patients. It’s not just following a process, like following a recipe in a cookbook. You have to be adaptable to the circumstances and adjust.
“I'm not just doing it for the financial reward. I'm a GP because it gives me job satisfaction. I know I can't change the world, but I also know I can change the lives of my patients for the better, and that’s very rewarding for me,” Dr Stark said.
Are you looking for somewhere to belong?
The sense of community in a regional place like Atherton is something many GPs might not find in a big city. For Dr Stark, his colleagues have not only become friends, but they also became bandmates.
From time to time, you’ll find Dr Stark and the ‘A Street Band’ entertaining locals in pubs around Atherton. While he says none of them will be giving up their day jobs anytime soon, the band is a great way for the team to unwind and socialise.
“It’s a testament to how well we get on as a practice,” Dr Stark says. “The doctors, the practice nurse, and the receptionist are all involved. It’s great fun being in a band with your colleagues. I think we all get quite a buzz out of performing in front of an audience. Our patients talk about it too, they’ll come in and ask ‘when’s your next gig?’ which is pretty cool.
“I think it’s so important to have other people around you, and being part of this team, this practice, together. I’m not on my own as a GP; I’ve got a team around me who can help me. We don't hide away in our rooms, not talking to anybody else. We're constantly chatting to each other and asking about patients,” Dr Stark said.
As well as being part of a tight-knit team environment, Dr Stark says that there is a sense of belonging and respect that comes from performing the role of GP in the community.
“As a GP in a rural town, you’re part of the community, and it’s ultimately why you are respected in that community. Once you’ve earned your patients respect, they become quite loyal. I know a lot of my patients won’t see anybody else. It means a lot to me to think that I’m important to them.
“You get to make genuine connections with patients in a place like Atherton. You get to love the community and you do care about your patients; they’ll come back to see you and they become quite important to you. Again, it’s that continuity of care that I love about being a GP,” Dr Stark said.
We would like to thank Dr Stark for sharing his journey as a GP, and for his dedication to the health of his community. Here at JCU, we know regional areas like the Tablelands are impacted by the health care maldistribution. We believe everybody deserves access to a doctor, no matter their postcode. If you considering a career as a GP, JCU’s GP Training Program is here to help you.