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Rural medicine brings big opportunities

24th May 2018

For Dr Alan Richardson, a career in rural medicine was not what he had expected and far from what he had heard about it. He said rural medicine opened many doors early in his career. “There is no way I would have been given the opportunity to take on the role of Director of Medical Services, five years out from medical school, in the city,” he said.

Dr Richardson completed his training in Maranoa with James Cook University’s General Practice (GP) training program. Just two months before achieving his fellowship in 2017, Dr Richardson was appointed Director of Medical Services for the Roma Health Precinct and also took on the role of JCU GP Supervisor. “This is a clear demonstration of the opportunities available in rural areas,” he said.

Working in a rural area was very different to what Dr Richardson had heard. “The professional isolation that I was told to expect does not really exist as I feel I am part of a community of rural practitioners who support each other in a myriad of different ways.”

“At first my wife and I thought that Roma was going to be hot, dry and full of flies and dust,” Dr Richardson said. Their plan was to complete his fellowship in Roma and then move somewhere ‘nicer’ to live. To their surprise, Dr Richardson and his wife fell in love with the people and the town. “We love Roma so much that we have recently purchased our own small property on the edge of town and are planning to stay for the foreseeable future,” he said.

The people Dr Richardson works with on a daily basis are what he enjoys most about rural medicine. The medical staff work together closely and support each other in a way that he hasn’t seen in his previous workplaces. “There’s that feeling that they have my back, the way I have theirs, and this enables me to concentrate on working towards the best patient outcomes,” he said.

In rural medicine Dr Richardson has experienced a diverse range of presentations including bull riding injuries, motor bike injuries, and horse riding injuries. Dr Richardson said he is yet to meet someone off the land who wears a helmet when riding a horse or a motorbike, which results in an increased frequency of head injuries. “I learned very early that when someone presents to the hospital from the bush saying they have pain, it is worth sitting up and paying attention,” he said. With some of his patients not having seen a doctor since their birth (and sometimes not even then), Dr Richardson said if they are complaining of pain then something very severe is going on.

Rural medicine can present a number of unique challenges but it can also be very rewarding. “The biggest professional challenge I face is constantly striving to ensure patients from my community get access to the same level of specialist care as is available to urban people” he said.

Dr Richardson and his wife enjoy the relaxed rural lifestyle and say that it is much more relaxed than what you would find in an urban area. “The lifestyle is second to none,” Dr Richardson said. Having no traffic jams, living a five minute drive to work and relaxing on his back deck watching the sunset are just some of the highlights Dr Richardson enjoys while living in a rural town.

Roma has a strong sense of community which Dr Richardson and his wife value very much. “People in our community are very friendly and it is the norm to have several people say good morning or give you a wave before you have even arrived at work in the morning,” he said.

Doctors who live and work in the local community and are invested in the provision of health will always be valued in rural communities. “Simply by demonstrating a willingness to stay in the community for the long term and treating people not as patients but as members of one’s community, makes a difference to how the community values you,” he said. 

“From the bakery staff greeting you by name, to the coffee lady who has your order ready for you before you even pull up, it is these simple things that make you feel like you are making a difference and your continued service is valued within the community.

“I would highly recommend procedural rural generalism to others. In the city you are just another doctor, in rural areas you are a valued asset to the community,” said Dr Richardson.

The role of a rural doctor is both physically and mentally demanding. Dr Richardson said the key to thriving in rural medicine is resilience and seeking support from your team. “None of us are alone, we have a team of clinicians around us both within the hospital, within the district and within the state who are accessible for advice, support and encouragement.”

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