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Having completed her medical degree in Sydney and many of her placements in regional NSW as well as in Kakadu, Anna then chose to then spend her junior doctor years on rotations in rural NSW in pursuit of becoming a psychiatrist. Then halfway through her training, Anna met her future partner whose work in mining engineering led them both to move to the Queensland mining town of Mount Isa. It was here that Anna unexpectantly changed tack to becoming a rural GP.
“We came to Mount Isa originally for my husband's work and I kind of fell into general practice when I when I got up here because I wasn't able to finish my psychiatry training living in a remote place like Mount Isa.
“So, I joined a scheme called the Rural Locum Relief Program run by Queensland Health Workforce which meant I was able to do about a one-year stint just trying out general practice. I then found I really liked it and from there decided I would do my GP training in Mount Isa.”
Fortunately, Anna was able to combine her interest in mental health and make use of her prior training in psychiatry while undertaking her GP training with JCU.
“Because of my special interest in mental health I've been able to work at Headspace here, a mental health service for 12 to 25-year-olds. This has been in addition to my GP clinic work where I was working at two practices.
Throughout her GP training journey, Anna says she felt well-supported and encouraged by the James Cook University GP Training team to continue to build on her interest and skills in mental health.
“The way JCU training is set up is you’ve got your different regional nodes like the one in Mount Isa, in addition to Townsville, with local support staff who help you out with ticking all your boxes with training, as well as making sure that you're getting opportunities to pursue what your interests are.”
According to Anna, Mount Isa’s status as a regional centre servicing Queensland’s northwest, with a population of around 18,000 people, means that it is just the right size to offer both opportunities and a close-knit community.
“Mount Isa is one of those places that seems like the world is your oyster because there are just so many opportunities to get involved and diversify your medical experiences. You can easily find something extra to keep you inspired and enjoying your work.
“Plus, the town is just big enough to function well. There is a hospital here and a heap of services. But as well as that, the health workforce here really come together as a team.
“You quickly get to know the other clinicians in town which makes it a lot easier to just get on the phone with them when you need to. It also means that you’re not just sitting in your general practice feeling isolated at times; you actually feel like you're part of the town’s team which was something that really appealed to me.”
Also situated in Mount Isa is James Cook University’s Murtupuni Centre for Rural and Remote Health, a research and education hub for rural, remote and Indigenous health issues that has been going strong since 1997.
“The Centre itself is quite an important part of people’s life here, especially for the town's health network, and is situated right next to the hospital. There’s a lot of health research and training that goes on and Professor Sabina Knight who heads up the Centre is a great advocate and supporter of local health issues.”
“From a General Practice point of view, the centre also provides a great service via a community rehabilitation program that the JCU health students participate in.”
Another benefit of undertaking her GP training in Mount Isa was the level of support that Anna received, particularly from her mentors.
“I was really lucky to find a fantastic mentor in Mary Emeleus from the JCU GP Training program who had a mental health interest and who had also worked in the Mount Isa region.
“And, of course, there is also the support you get from the medical educators and supervisors. When you're doing your actual training and exam preparation mode, they are checking up on you and making sure that you're on target for being able to pass your exams, which is so important when doing your training.
“There is always someone there from the JCU GP Training team who has got your back.”
Rural specialist GP and JCU medical educator, Dr Anna Cunningham, has made it her mission to make an impact on both the physical and mental health of people living in the Queensland outback community of Mount Isa.
During the seven years that Anna worked in Mount Isa as a GP and registrar, she noticed an increasing number of teachers coming into her clinic suffering from high levels of stress and fatigue. However, when referring them to mental health support services, she found that many teachers struggled to access support services out of school hours.
This led Anna to devise an innovative solution by liaising with local schools and service providers in the area and setting up an on-site pilot Teachers Wellbeing Clinic at St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School.
The pilot clinic, initially aimed at early career teachers, proved to be so successful that it was later expanded to all teaching and school support staff, offering preventative mental health strategies and referral pathways to local psychologists, specialists, and allied health practitioners. Furthermore, in between the on-site clinics, Anna provided timely access to GP care and follow up to discuss results and review treatment.
This innovative, community-based approach to improving mental health outcomes for a particular group of professionals resulted in Anna being awarded the Community Project of the Year in 2020 by the Royal Australian College of GPs (RACGP). The project also formed part of Dr Cunningham's Fellowship in Advanced Rural General Practice.