Category Archives: GP

Avoiding Burnout

An interesting week this week, with several stories coming together for me.

First up, a discussion on doctors.net.uk / ausdoctors.net (the members only service for UK and Australian doctors) on ‘tips for new consultants’. Covered the sort of things that don;t get taught at medical school or in postgraduate training. Also tips on setting up a private practice and avoiding burnout. A common theme was to ‘say no’ to unmanageable workload and to try to take control of the work environment, not let it control you.

Of course all of this is relevant to rural doctors, which leads to the second theme – that of managing workload in the bush. Scott Lewis (procedural GP in Wudinna and newly appointed President of RDASA) rightly points out the constant stream of negativity regarding rural medicine. Despite this, I think Scott and I agree that rural practice really does offer the ‘best bits’ of medicine – a varied and interesting mix, with opportunities to be challenged every day.

Concurrently this week the doctor in Penola, SA has left – citing an unmanageable workload & bureaucratic bungling by Country Health SA. As well as managing a day time clinic, poor chap was on call 24:7 every day of the year and reportedly chastised for having the temerity to be more than 20 mins from the hospital on one occasion (CountryHealth SA contract allows a 40 minute response time). Ironically this doctor was brought in a year or so ago, to replace the previous doctor, who lasted only 4 months.

Of course there’s the local issue on Kangaroo Island, with the sustainable model of Island docs doing 21 out of 28 days per month on call for emergencies, as well as 365 day a year cover for each of obstetric and anaesthetic rosters. This workload was sustainable and allowed respite from the onerous emergency roster, as well as to balance the demands of running a private general practice.

Common themes?

(i) Financial Incentives

Historically money has been thrown to entice doctors to the bush. Whilst this helps, it is ironic that the same incentives are offered to fly-in, fly-out locums who live in the city and cherry pick high-paying locum work. Indeed some rural communities are wising up to this and realising that paying locums $2500 per day is a disincentive to establishment of permanent resident doctors who have to bear practice costs. KI docs got into a stoush with the Health Department (and the ACCC) a few years ago, when asking for more money to provide on call services. The money doesn’t compensate for working day & night – but it does allow one to purchase much-needed locum relief.

(ii) Control of workload

There are 168 hours per week, which I think of rather like a Mars Bar – it should be divided into equal thirds of work, rest & play. An 8 hr working day is sufficient, and allows time for rest (sleep) as well as play (hobbies, other interests – but also mundane things like cooking, eating, toileting etc). Of course most of us experience ‘bracket creep’ with work intruding into time off and eventually life can become 2/3rds work, 1/3rd rest. Not a good idea. Having strict boundaries between work and home life, as well as declining extra duties means that workload is sustainable.

Much better though to share the workload – a roster of several doctors working part-time is a better model than the traditional solo small town GP. Which leads into the third theme..,

(iii) Learning to ‘say no’

Which is the unenviable position the KI docs find themselves in currently. A model hashed out with the Health Department a few years ago allows KI docs to work 21 out of 28 days per month for emergency on call, with the Health Department providing a locum for their hospital on just one week per month. Meanwhile KI docs provided 365 day cover for separate anaesthetic and obstetric rosters. Not a bad effort for six part time doctors, and allows us time off for a break as well as mandatory upskilling.

A proposal that KI docs take full responsibility for the emergency roster and fund any locum relief themselves was met with disappointment, It sets a dangerous precedent – for if the number of doctors on KI were to fall in the future (as is likely), the remaining doctors would be forced into paying for a locum to staff the hospital. A sum of $10,300+GST per week has been suggested as typical locum costs.

Taken to a logical extreme, if the Island doctors were unable to provide the service (through ill health, absence, whatever) they could be liable for a bill of $10,300+GST x 52 weeks … all for the privilege of doing EXTRA work to their usual 9-to-5 private general practice.

This really is the crux of the tension and difficulty in rural practice. Not only are their insufficient doctors and problems with throwing money at all-and-sundry, ultimately we are independent contractors. We already have a job that consumes a standard working week – that of running our own private practice. With that come attendant costs of staffing, utilities, rent etc which must be met.

To ask us to either take time out of practice to work at the State-owned public hospital (for considerably less money) and yet still pay pay own practice expenses seems unfair. And the demands of working extra hours on call takes it’s toll.

In the city, public hospitals are staffed by doctors and nurses working shifts. They are salaried and also get benefits like annual leave, long-service leave and superannuation. In the bush? Doctors work running their own private practices and traditionally have worked ‘on call’. Sadly workloads have increased (particularly in tourism destinations like Kangaroo Island) making on call a significant burden and at the expense not just of doctor’s health, but also ability to service own clinic patients. There is no Super, no annual leave. The Health Dept just wants to staff the roster, but doesn’t really care how this is fulfilled so long as the cost is shifted elsewhere.

Add to this the demands of a Medicare Locals policy that seems to be more about ‘wants’ than ‘needs’ … and the abhorrent policy in South Australia of charging public patients a fee for non-admitted A&E services (contrary to section 19(2) or National healthcare Agreement). It all seems that costs and services are being shifted from State responsibility to private practice.

Hence it is sometimes better to ‘say no’ and do only what you can do.

Any other thoughts on preventing burn out?

Rural GP Anaesthetists – a ‘special needs’ mob?

As a rural doc I’m very lucky to have a job that is varied. I tell students and junior doctors that rural medicine offers all the stimulation and challenges of all the ‘best bits’ of medicine.

Currently I practice primary healthcare, emergency medicine and anaesthetics (I gave up obstetrics last year).

So this weekend just gone was a highlight – a chance to attend an annual GP-anaesthetics conference at one of the mainland tertiary hospitals. I’ve had this date ruled off in my diary for 12 months now…so you can imagine my disappointment when the ferry to/from Kangaroo Island sustained damage in the recent storms and the replacement therapy had to be hurriedly re-surveyed, launched and pressed into service. Needless to say all Rex flights were booked out days ahead and despite lots of people needing to get to/from KI, Rex declined to put on extra flights.

Noone can control the weather, but the lack of a contingency plan was disappointing. Not that Rex have a strong history of customer service…

Anyway, I missed the first day of the two day conference. But although I made it to the second, I was somewhat underwhelmed by what I did attend, cementing further my belief that there needs to be content tailored to the rural GPA delivered by people who ‘get’ rural medicine.

To backtrack, I went to my first rural GP-anaesthetist in NSW last year. It was really good, a day and a half of lectures, plus a half day in the sim lab doing emergency scenarios. But what struck me there was the disparity in equipment and resources available between city and rural anaesthetists…as well as between rural GPAs in different parts of the State. Lectures by some of the FANZCAs were all very interesting…but often they did not realise the conditions in which rural GPAs work (isolated, minimal equipment, no backup, cash-starved). At the same time I was getting increasingly inspired by blogs such as Resus.me, BroomeDocs.com, Prehospitalmed.com and LifeInTheFastLane – all of which seemed highly relevant to my practice.

So I resolved to look at some quality improvement in my own practice on my return to SA, mindful of the fact that it made sense to have commonalities in equipment and protocols available to rural anaesthetic providers. Setting up a GoogleDocs survey was relatively easy, and I was gratified to get a 2/3 response rate from rural GP-anaesthetists around Australia on my topic of difficult airway equipment availability. I’ll be talking about this at the Fremantle Rural Medicine Australia conference and my paper should be out in the Oct-Dec volume of Rural & Remote Health. Stay tuned…

So, a year down the track I had really high hopes of further upskilling in SA. Whilst most of the content was good, there was an alarming propensity of some lectures to cover topics like cell salvage, lab-markers in major transfusion and the like – all very interesting, but not translatable to the rural practice environment where such resources aren’t available. Questions on topics such as delayed sequence intubation and whole blood live donor panels were unfamiliar ground for the FANZCA experts, although very pertinent to many of the rural doctors.

Small group sessions made up for it, with hands on experience and chances for case discussion.

But a common theme amongst the people I spoke to was that city anaesthetists task with lecturing had very little idea of the resource limitations in country areas. The vast majority of us don’t have remifentanil..or desflurane..or BIS…or access to FFP/cryo/platelets…or labs..or $15K videolaryngoscopes. The FANZCAs who visit rural hospitals, whether for elective lists or retrieval, did at least have an idea of our circumstances Yand ‘special needs’

So, what does the rural GPA really need?

- lectures from experienced anaesthetists? Hell yes.
- small group sessions and case discussions? Even better.
- topics targetted to the audience and suggestions for improvement. Absolutely!

…and to top it off, perhaps consideration be given to sharing the knowledge base by holding two sessions per year (allows more docs to attend…as if one doc is at the conference, the other needs to be oncall)

…and even better, consider delivering content in rural areas by taking some of the ideas on the road.

The other thing that concerns me is the lack of communication between rural docs. Locally the RDASA has a ‘rural anaesthetists’ email group, but it has been inactive for a few years. It seems that many of us have the same issues with respect to equipment procurement, training and upskilling – yet operate in silos. Moreover there is little ‘top-down’ direction – certainly I have no sense of direction from the ‘Country Health SA Anaesthetic Consultant’ and it would be nice to see some more dynamism.

Maybe next year will be better…I’m going to keep pushing the barrel for local delivery of leading edge concepts in EM/anaesthesia that are rurally relevant for myself and other doctors.

Email me if you have any thoughts on this.

Reductio ad absurdum

Recent discussions with fellow rural doctors in South Australia have left me somewhat depressed.


I reckon that being a rural doctor is one of, if not the best job in medicine. You really get to enjoy all the ‘best bits’ of medicine, with a diverse workload that is continually challenging. Its also a great lifestyle (I don’t miss living in the city nor being stuck in traffic when commuting to/from the tertiary hospital). And the remuneration for a rural procedural GP is relatively good.

Dr Tim – proudly South Australian



But last night I heard from colleagues that specialists now outnumber generalists (GPs) in this State…and that they find medical students are increasingly pursuing careers in lucrative 9-5 specialties rather than general practice. 


Personally, I find that some specialists are more like partialists – how many times have we seen patients discharged form the ‘chest pain assessment unit’ with a scrawled discharge summary “serial troponins negative, normal exercise-stress test. Diagnosis = non-cardiac.” What the? That’s not a diagnosis…it just means that the patient hasn’t had an angina attack or infarct. They may still have a pulmonary embolus, or a pneumonia, or gallstones, even shingles – all of which can cause chest pain. Thankfully there are still a few “general physicians” around who get the big picture (mostly geriatricians) but they, like the rural doctor, are increasingly marginalised as partialists take over.


Now there is a danger here – increasing specialisation can lead to loss of the overview that is so important when treating a patient (and despite modern advances, medicine remains art as well as science). Patients seeking a ‘partialist’ may end up being passed from the cardiologist (not cardiac) to the gastroenterologist (not reflux) to the respiratory physician (not lung). The costs of fragmenting care in this way can be huge, particularly when there’s noone taking control.


Trigger-happy GPs (you know the ones – the guys who are writing the specialist referral even as the patient enters the room to sit down) are partly to blame, as is a culture that expects a specialist to be the be-all and end-all in the medical journey.


There remains value in a good family doctor, who can see the overall picture, take a decent history and initiate management, perhaps refer for an opinion when necessary, then continue ongoing care. I’m proud to be a generalist, not a partialist. In these days where everyone wants a holistic approach, the family GP is best-placed to deliver such care.

Jack of all trades, 
master of none
But oft times better,
than master of one



Money is also an issue – medical students face increasing debts (some are coming out with debts approaching $100K) and need to pay off their training. There is a perception that general practice is poorly remunerated. The ceiling may be less than some specialties, but the non-monetary benefits of a flexible portfolio career are worth money in the bank. Rural proceduralists can command high incomes, but the cost for this can be no time off and a life cut short by long hours. As the rural workforce dwindles, this problem compounds and the attrition rate accelerates.


Why then are we struggling to recruit and retain rural doctors? It may well be lack of exposure, or a teaching hospital that denigrates generalism vs partialism. I was one of these naysayers when I was a junior doctor, but was soon converted once I was first exposed to rural medicine. And there’s the rub – we need to get student doctors exposed to rural medicine early in their careers, and sell them on the lifestyle benefits and income potential that is the drawcard for many in Gen Y


The current contract between RDASA and Country Health SA is up for negotiation (contract expires Dec 2011) and of course one way to hang on to the current declining rural workforce is to improve remuneration for the most arduous part of the work ie: on call duties as outlined by RDASA. Whether the bureaucrats will see merit in this or not is moot – experiences on KI last year, when CHSA willingly spent $2000 a day on locums rather than negotiate with local doctors, leaves me to suspect that bureaucrats may well save a few bob by failing to meet RDASA demands, and instead end up paying 10x more through use of locums. But it probably comes from another budget, so that’s OK?!?


On Kangaroo Island we have recently become involved in the PRCC programme, whereby third year students spend a year located in a rural environment to pick up their skills, rather than rotate through traditional ‘firms’ in the teaching hospital. It’s an innovative idea and I hope it works (for my own succession planning and the ongoing needs of my community).


South Australia may also soon head down the pathway of encouraging a career in rural medicine through dedicated rural procedural training pathway – a sort of cadetship if you like, similar to that used in Queensland, whereby medical graduates are fast-tracked through rotations relevant to a rural career, not least obstetrics and anaesthetics (traditionally hard to come by)….with the whole deal sweetened by a guaranteed income from State coffers to work as a rural proceduralist.


We need these sort of innovations. Because one thing is for sure – if we continue down the pathway of referring everything more complicated than a hangnail to a specialist, health costs will skyrocket and the needs of the public will not be well met.