There was never a ‘light bulb moment’ for Alex Harris; it is just that, from the age of four or thereabouts, he knew he wanted to be a doctor.
However, when it came to rural and remote practice, it was not so much a defining moment but a defining year that set his course in medicine – the Rural Clinical School year he did in 2004 at Broome on the Kimberley coast of Western Australia.
“If I had not done that RCS year I don’t think I would be doing this job I am doing now,” he says.
“The DMO’s got to do emergency work, in-patients, anaesthetics and obstetrics as well. I am someone who doesn’t like to do the same thing every day, and certainly the job has unrivalled variety which you do not get in any other field really.”
And, like so many others, Alex found the mentors and the opportunities available in a remote setting exhilarating. He talks of doctors who were open and willing to share the knowledge of the very broad range of experiences with which they had to deal.
“To some degree, you really did get to know every doctor in town and, because they were seeing you regularly and they knew who you were and what you had done, you certainly got to do more stuff.
“I probably did more anaesthetics than anyone else in my whole year, I would imagine, just because I was interested and whenever I was in with the surgical teams they would let me do a range of things.
“In the emergency department you got to stitch up people as well as do the procedural stuff that all students might do. It was a little less so in general practice; it is harder in that setting because it is very ‘one on one’ and as a student you really don’t have the knowledge to do a whole consult.
“But overall, the doctors were certainly very keen and you could get as involved as you wanted to – I learnt a lot of my skills. The whole year was pretty wonderful to be honest. The hospital time and working with the DMO’s really opened it up as a career to me and I never looked back.”
The RCS year also yielded an unplanned benefit for Alex – he met his wife, Cathy, who was working as a pharmacist with the Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Service.
When he finished his studies, Cathy swapped over and took up medicine and the couple spent several years travelling and working in regional New South Wales and Tasmania before returning to Broome in 2015.
Cathy is now in general practice while, with Alex, she juggles a growing family of two young boys and another baby on the way. Rapt with the lifestyle of Broome, Alex believes the ongoing challenge of rural and remote medicine is to know your limits; know when to say ‘no.’
“It is quite a challenge because we know what a burden it is for someone to have to travel to Perth from Broome to get a procedure done – it may be one of those things we could do here, and nine out of 10 times it would go well, but the other time…
“No-one will look favourably on us for taking on work that we shouldn’t have. That’s quite a challenge; albeit a challenge that exists in almost every facet of my work, though, because I work mostly in an emergency department, but I am not an emergency physician; when I do anaesthetics, I am not a specialist anaesthetist; when I am looking after in-patients I am not a general physician or a cardiologist or neurologist.
“So being stretched is part and parcel of the job – it is the best and worst aspect of it I guess. “