As a GP in Maningrida, Northern Territory, Dr Melanie Matthews is passionate about caring and advocating for vulnerable communities.
When she graduated from a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) in 2010, Dr Melanie Matthews had her heart set on becoming a surgeon. But a scholarship that saw her working in remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory changed everything.
After working in hospitals for a few years, Dr Matthews realised general practice in remote communities was where she wanted to be. Since then, she’s never looked back.
What’s your role, and how did your studies help you prepare for it?
I work as a general practitioner in a remote Aboriginal community in West Arnhem Land, NT. The work I do requires excellent communication skills – both working as part of a team and in communicating with people who have English as a fourth or fifth language and poor health literacy.
Studying at the University of Melbourne gave me an excellent education in many aspects of medicine, many of which I use daily. It also helped me develop great communication skills and the ability to converse with people from a broad range of cultural, linguistic and religious backgrounds.
What drives you to do your best at work?
I work with a very vulnerable and disempowered population of people. My motivation is to provide my community with the best medical care possible, which is what all Australians deserve but do not necessarily get, particularly in rural and remote communities.
I want to be the best doctor and advocate I can be for my patients and ensure they receive culturally safe and appropriate health care, and don't get 'lost' in the system as so many do. I work hard to be an excellent collaborator and communicator and strive to be the best doctor and person I can be.
I love the communities I work in, the people and teams I work with and the breadth of medicine. I also love providing health care to a population with very poor health outcomes and advocating for people in a difficult, convoluted and under-resourced health system.
What are some of your strongest memories from your time at the University of Melbourne?
I have many great memories studying at the University of Melbourne. I loved travelling into the city each day, the beautiful old buildings and courtyards – and the proximity to Lygon Street and shops!
I also loved the opportunity to be taught and mentored by doctors and professors who were experts in their fields, as well as great small group learning.
The social aspect of the university and medical schools is also very important. We had so many incredible social events over the years, which enriched the university experience.
Who or what motivated you at university?
I've always been motivated to do well in my studies, but I had to work very hard in high school and my undergraduate degree in biomedical science to get into medicine.
I found working in study groups with friends, practising physical examinations together and collaborating with co-students really helped to keep my motivation levels high.
What are some of your career highlights so far, and what’s next?
Highlights of my career include receiving two Fellowships – FRACGP and FARGP. The FARGP is a Fellowship in Rural General Practice, with extended skills in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health. I’m also on the Rural council of RACGP, representing the Northern Territory and providing a voice for GPs who work in remote Aboriginal communities.
To be honest, all my time working in the Northern Territory has been a highlight. The medicine I see is so interesting and varied, I’m never bored. I also have the privilege of working with communities of people from one of the oldest cultures on Earth, and they are so welcoming and willing to share their culture with those of us who live and work there.
In the near future, my aim is to enrol in and complete a Master of Public Health to further my skills in policy and advocacy.
What challenges have you faced in your career and how have you overcome them?
The COVID-19 pandemic has been the most challenging event in my career. Being in remote community with a highly vulnerable community without any knowledge of what was going to happen was extremely stressful.
Early on we were subject to lockdown by federal laws governing movements in and out of Aboriginal communities. After that we had many different lockdowns, both federal and state-based, to protect the community.
During that time, we really felt isolated, managing everything for the community without any visiting services such as allied health, dentists, medical specialist, social services etc. We also had to manage vaccination programs for the entire community and education for a community with low health literacy.
When we eventually did get a COVID outbreak in early 2022, our health service had to manage everything associated with that, from the health care of people affected, contact tracing, monitoring households, providing food and power facilities, negotiating with Centrelink etc.
It’s been a very intense few years, but the way we got through was working as a team with a very supportive health service behind us (the local Aboriginal health service I work for) and engaging with the community and Traditional Owners the whole way through.
What’s the most unexpected thing you’ve learned along the way?
That it’s okay not to have a plan, or for your plan to change.
In medicine it often feels like we need to know from the beginning where we’re heading and how to get there. But this isn't practical, and life and ambitions change. It’s important to embrace this and take the time and energy to sit and re-think and evaluate what you want in life.
There are so many different aspects of medicine and careers in medicine that you can pursue, and it’s worth considering these and changing things if you aren’t happy or if you want to pursue something else.
What advice do you have for current students?
Think outside the box and don't be afraid to try new and different things! There’s a whole world out there full of different people and experiences.