For Alex Maslen, the innately practical nature of the Rural Clinical School provided just the circuit-breaker she needed to revitalise her interest as she studied her way through medical school.
“By the time I got to third year I was just about ready to quit medicine because I was not loving the book side of it,” she says.
“I am not a very good book learner – for me getting out of the classroom and into the hands on practical stuff was absolutely vital; I wouldn’t have continued doing medicine if I had to face much more purely theoretical learning.
“I don’t seem to remember things very well from just passive learning; I tend to remember all my pathology based on, ‘oh, yep, I saw that in that patient and that’s what happened’ and then I’m inclined to go and read more about it and consolidate my knowledge.
“I found that after the RCS year we were so far ahead of some of our peers who had remained in the city in terms of the hands on stuff that we got to do which, just because of more favourable ratio of students to mentors and clinicians, as well as the ease of access to patients, they hadn’t had a chance to do many procedural things in the big tertiary hospitals where they were lined up behind so many other people trying to learn the same thing.
Alex, who was raised on a remote pastoral station north of Carnarvon, opted for a change of scenery for her RCS year in 2010 – the seaside town of Busselton in the state’s south-west.
Her mentors taught her more than simply medicine; they confirmed her view of the life and lifestyle she wanted to live.
“We had a fabulous Medical Co-ordinator, Sandra Rennie, who is a very skilled Emergency Physician and is still actively involved with RCS down there. Between her and many the other GPs I was placed with, I saw where I wanted to go. It totally reinforced that rural generalist medicine would be the career for me, because they all had such a good work-life balance with a varied challenging career and a good outlook on life.
“They just loved their jobs and I wanted to get to that point.”
Alex came to medicine late. It was not her first career choice and after studies in agricultural science and economics, she ultimately found herself working in the corporate world of mining giant Rio Tinto in London.
It was tragedy that brought her back home and to the realisation that rural medicine was where she wanted to be.
“My mum passed away very suddenly and I came back from London to Carnarvon to help wind up some smaller family businesses. I spent six months there and came to the conclusion that the corporate world was actually not for me long term.
“After a few years in Carnarvon working for Tourism WA and thinking about what I wanted to do with my life, I realised I needed a job that was more ‘people based’ and I wanted to have a good challenging career I could do rurally.
“Living in regional Australia for most of my life, I understood first hand how difficult it often was to get in to see a doctor, let alone a doctor of your choice. I could rarely get in to see a female GP and often the only option was a well meaning locum, meaning there was little continuity of care.”
“So I understood the need, and I thought, ‘ I could do that job and hopefully have a great lifestyle and be part of a community.’
“I think that’s really important for me because growing up, and particularly after my mum passed away, where suddenly going back to my home town, I was reminded of the support that was offered to us as part of that community and this reinforced that I eventually wanted to live and raise my own family in a rural community.”
Since graduating and doing her internship at Fremantle Hospital, which included two terms in Broome, Alex’s medical career – between short breaks for the birth of boys Jack and Archer – has been largely based in the Kimberley; initially as a Resident at Broome Hospital, working in the Emergency Department and later with the Kimberley Medical Service (KAMS) at Broome Aboriginal Medical Service (BRAMS). She also completed a six month residency in ENT and Ophthalmology in Bunbury in the South West.
In mid-2016 she moved to Derby after returning from maternity leave following the birth of Archer.
“At KAMS there was a fair bit of clinic time, some remote work at Communities on Dampier Peninsula that they service, and then attending the other local clinics they run such as Headspace. BRAMS also run specific clinics for teenagers, women’s health, things like that.
“I am expecting DAHS (Derby Aboriginal Health Service) to be similar.
“In the Kimberley the learning opportunities are really good in that you see so much pathology and often very unwell patients managing multiple chronic diseases – that’s been really beneficial for my medical learning and while I have been completing my GP training."
“We see things here that you just don’t get to see elsewhere – patients with TB and leprosy and things that many people don’t think exist anymore in Australia –and it is a really well supported learning environment up here with great access to experienced clinicians and specialists for somewhere so remote, so I have enjoyed that.”
Looking to the future, Alex eyes not only a move back to where she completed her RCS year, but also an involvement with the School.
“I loved my year in Busselton, and now that I have a young family of my own, I think in the next few years we hope to eventually end up back in the south-west which is where I can see a great opportunity to achieve a varied and challenging career and good work life balance and lifestyle for myself and my family.
“Hopefully there will be the opportunity to get involved with RCS from the teaching point of view and then combine education with GP work and hopefully a bit of emergency work as well.”