Rural Medicine: Dr Jeff Robinson and Dr Christine McConnell

A day in the life: the rewards and challenges faced by Dr Jeff Robinson & Dr Christine McConnell in regional Australia.

Dr Jeff Robinson (MBBS 1991) is a dedicated rural doctor who has served the Victorian alpine communities of Mount Beauty and Falls Creek for the past seventeen years.

His commitment to his local community was recognised late last year when he was named 2015 Rural Doctor of the Year, a peer-nominated honour bestowed upon him by the Rural Doctor’s Association of Australia.

“In North East Victoria, Dr Robinson’s name is synonymous with the highest qualities of a specialist rural GP,” said Dr Ewen McPhee, President of the Rural Doctor’s Association of Australia.

Growing up in Stawell and Ballarat in the Western District of Victoria, Jeff always knew he would come back to the country. One of the attractions to rural general practice was the breadth of medical challenges he would be expected to deal with.

“From a clinical perspective the isolation of being a rural doctor means dealing with the broadest possible range of clinical presentations both in terms of illnesses as well as emergencies. Working without the complex diagnostic equipment that is available in metropolitan hospitals, I frequently draw upon my fundamental training in physiology and anatomy, particularly here in the ski fields where accidents and trauma are not uncommon with people bike riding in summer and skiing in winter.

Professor Julian Wright, Director of Medical Education for the University of Melbourne’s Rural Clinical School in Shepparton, concurs: “While the curriculum is identical across the Melbourne Medical School, the experience students will have in the rural clinic is to see medical conditions managed without the specialist clinics available in the big cities.”

The Melbourne Medical School has been placing students in rural rotations in GP and hospital settings for nearly twenty-five years and ten years ago established the Rural Clinical School to create a specialist cohort of medical graduates with an education grounded in rural areas.

“In a rural GP setting, you can’t always get a second opinion quickly so resilience and confidence in your own abilities are essential qualities when facing complex medical conditions head-on,” said Professor Wright.

The University’s Rural Clinical School offers a special initiative that integrates students with small rural town general practices and hospitals for an entire year. Dr Robinson’s practices, the Mount Beauty and Falls Creek Medical Centres are a teaching practice for these students who are known as the ‘Extended Rural Cohort’ or ERC.

“ERC students spend a year of their degree attached to our practice,” explains Dr Robinson.  "I really enjoy teaching them. It's rewarding to see them grow in confidence and skills and its good for us as teachers as it keeps us on our toes!”

An even more extreme experience of isolated medical practice is that of Dr Christine McConnell (MBBS 1982) a rural GP for over 20 years and recipient of the Rural Health West Award for Remote and Clinically Challenging Medicine (2010).

After a stint as a GP in the Antarctic, Dr McConnell swapped the freezing conditions for the broiling Australian outback, moving to work with the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) based in Meekatharra — a small, isolated town in Western Australia once famously described by former Prime Ministerial wife Tammie Fraser as ‘the end of the earth’.

As a Senior Medical Officer with RFDS, Dr McConnell is one of the very few female general practitioners practising in remote Western Australia. When asked about the unique challenges and rewards of her work Dr McConnell replied: “In a remote and isolated general practice we are often dealing with significant and complex medical problems.  But the reward of working in a regional setting is the depth of the relationships and family connections that you come to understand within the community and the appreciation the people have for the service that you offer.”

Dr Robinson agrees wholeheartedly. He describes his job as ‘one of the best jobs in the world’:  “It is a privilege to be able to work in such a beautiful place. I enjoy the challenges and the sheer variety of rural practice. Not a day goes by when I don’t see something interesting and thought provoking.”