The unsung heroes on International Doctors Day: Rural GPs

Rural GP

In rural areas, where the beauty of nature meets the challenge of isolation, a group of dedicated professionals serve tirelessly, often without the recognition they truly deserve. These are the rural General Practitioners (GPs), the unsung heroes of healthcare, who embody resilience, compassion, and a deep commitment to their communities.

The unique challenges

Rural GPs face a set of challenges that their urban counterparts might seldom encounter. They often work in remote locations, far from the nearest hospital, making access to specialist care and resources a logistical challenge. Their practices serve as the frontline of healthcare, dealing with a wide range of medical issues, from acute illnesses and chronic conditions to emergency care and mental health support.

The diversity of cases requires rural GPs to possess a broad skill set and the ability to make quick, sometimes lifesaving decisions in isolation. The close-knit nature of rural communities means that GPs not only manage their patients' health but also navigate the complexities of caring for those they know personally, blurring the lines between professional and community life.

Here are some stories of rural GPs we want to celebrate:

Dr Sarah Jane McEwan is a Wiradjuri woman and remote GP living and working in Port Hedland, Western Australia.

"I work out of the hospital setting, balancing my time in the emergency department and maternity, wherever the need is greatest. I deal with high acuity, together with emergency trauma and general practice-type presentations. The presentation rate is around 35% Indigenous patients, but the remote setting presents a diverse cross-section of people. It’s a constant struggle attending to all types of presentations with very few resources. This, combined with an acute shortage of GPs, infrequent access to specialist support and the added load of trauma and workplace accidents from the mine, requires determination." Dr McEwan told RACGP

Dr Khean Shang (James) Wong graduated from University of Western Australia in 2013. He completed his GP training in Broome, where he developed an interest in Aboriginal health.

"I’ve learnt to really listen to my patients so I can understand what they need. I think this is a skill we need even more in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health."Dr Wong told RACGP

In Ha’ateiho, on the main island of Tongatapu, there’s a small Kiwi-style general practice called the Village Mission Clinic. Started by New Zealander Dr Glennis Mafi more than thirty years ago, it is still the only GP clinic in Tonga. Dr Mafi built up the clinic over many years, regularly doing GP jobs and attending courses back in New Zealand to supplement her income and maintain her knowledge and high standards.

“This sort of practice is something that we take for granted in Australia, New Zealand and other parts of the world. What’s striking about working in the Village Mission Clinic is how grateful the patients are for your help, they’re not used to this sort of care and are very appreciative."

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The rewards of rural practice

Despite these challenges, working as a rural GP offers unique rewards. The breadth of practice in rural medicine provides an unparalleled opportunity for professional growth and skill development. Rural GPs often cite the deep personal satisfaction that comes from making a tangible difference in the lives of their patients and the communities they serve.

The strong relationships formed with patients over time are also rewarding. In rural settings, GPs witness the direct impact of their care on individuals and families, creating a sense of fulfillment that transcends professional achievement.

For Dr Sneha Kirubakaran, taking an unusual career path has worked to her advantage. Based in Adelaide, she works as a locum rural GP in towns across South Australia and parts of Queensland. But she didn’t set out to become a rural generalist.

“They sent me to a small town called Jamestown, in rural South Australia. I absolutely loved rural medicine because in urban general practice most things could easily be sent to a specialist or to the hospital down the street. In rural places, you had to go above and beyond what urbans GPs did in their practice. You had the opportunity to do the inpatient work, the opportunity to do the emergency work, as well as the good old general practice work.”

Dr Michelle McIntosh graduated from Flinders University School of Medicine in 2008 and now works as a GP in Millicent, South Australia. McIntosh is one of seven GPs serving a rural population of 12,000 people.

"I just love the variety of general practice in the country....We're sort of lucky we're a little town here, but if you did want a bit more, it's not too far to Mount Gambier for other things." Dr McIntosh told Stuff Media

Supporting rural GPs

Recognising the integral role that rural GPs play, it's essential to support them through enhanced training programs, incentives, and resources tailored to the challenges of rural practice. Ensuring access to continuing medical education, telemedicine, and specialist support can help mitigate the isolation and resource constraints faced by rural GPs.

“I would highly recommend rural work for junior doctors. Rural medicine is value-added medicine. You get to do all sorts of interesting things that you wouldn’t do if you were an urban GP." Dr Sneha Kirubakaran

Fostering a greater appreciation for the work of rural GPs within the broader medical community and among the public is important. Celebrating their contributions not only acknowledges their dedication but also inspires the next generation of doctors to consider the rewarding path of rural medicine.

Rural Women's GP service

The ongoing heroes in remote and rural medicine, RFDS Victoria delivers a Rural Women’s GP service to a number of small rural communities across Victoria, with the aim of providing a gender choice to all patients who would like to see a female GP or a consistent visiting GP.

Rural GPs are often the backbone of healthcare in remote areas, providing comprehensive medical care against the backdrop of unique challenges. Their dedication to their patients and communities exemplifies the best of the medical profession. As unsung heroes, rural GPs deserve our recognition, support, and gratitude for their unwavering commitment to ensuring the health and wellbeing of rural populations.

Medrecruit Editorial Team
11 March 2024Article by Medrecruit Editorial TeamMedrecruit Editor