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Champion of general practice

Cate Swannell
Med J Aust
Published online: 2 June 2014

Dr Linda Mann is a general practitioner with a passion for education, women’s health, genetics and supporting rural communities. She’s a hero to a generation of female GPs.

When Dr Linda Mann set up her own general practice in Leichhardt in Sydney’s inner west in 1987 she was one of very few.

“It was 7 December 1987 and the number of women who owned and managed their own practice could be counted on the fingers of one hand”, Dr Mann tells the MJA. “I knew only one other.”

Shortly after hanging out her shingle, Dr Mann teamed up with a colleague from the University of New South Wales’ class of 1976, Dr Dianne Chambers.

“We wanted to create more GPs in our own image”, Dr Mann says. “We wanted to be a bulk-billing, left-wing, feminist practice — and we became a teaching practice very early. Our first registrar was 1989 or ‘90.”

That first registrar was Dr Julie Blaze, now a GP practising in Bulli, New South Wales.

“Linda’s my hero”, Dr Blaze tells the MJA. “She’s a champion for general practice.

“GPs are often thought of by specialists as of lesser importance. Linda made me proud to be a GP and not feel like a specialist’s second cousin.”

Dr Mann suspects her feminist approach was something of a breath of fresh air.

“We had a cohort of female specialists we referred to. It was unbelievably necessary. In 1978, for example, the board of St Vincent’s had 42 people on it, only one of whom was a woman.”

Dr Mann didn’t start her medical career as a GP. Instead, an interest in genetics saw her complete her Bachelor of Science (Medicine) at UNSW in 1974 after her own GP told her she was “too intelligent” to be a general practitioner.

“That says something about people’s opinions of general practice, doesn’t it?” she says.

She completed her MB BS in 1976 and was on the specialist path, “living the hospital life” at St Vincent’s in Sydney when a revelation hit.

“I saw myself in the emergency department and I was getting furious with the overdose patients who hadn’t managed to kill themselves, and I was furious with those with minor conditions who were wasting our time”, she says.

“It was hard on the patients and nobody was hitting the sweet spot for me. If that’s not the definition of burnout, I don’t know what is.”

Dr Mann decided to head overseas and applied for a position in Scotland in obstetrics and gynaecology. But, being Linda Mann, she opted to take the overland route through Africa rather than hopping on a plane.

“I was worried I was going to be late and they would give the position to someone else so I kept contacting them and reassuring them that I was going to get there. They formed a unique image of me as a blonde, surfie bombshell – instead they got me”, she laughs.

The Scottish experience proved worthwhile and also restored Dr Mann’s love for genetics, leading to her appointment at the Institute of Medical Genetics in Glasgow, where she spent 18 months.

After attempting fellowship in Britain she realised that after all it was general practice that was calling her.

Dr Mann returned to Sydney in 1986 and spent time in an entrepreneur-run practice — “Dodgy Brothers” she called them — and in an inner west practice run by a GP with “interesting prescribing habits”, before making the decision to set up her own practice.

She and Dr Chambers did well enough to expand the practice, eventually to three sites across the inner west. The Leichhardt practice won the inaugural Australian General Practice of the Year. Now, several incarnations later, Your Doctors is a 19-GP, three-location operation.

“We wanted to spread the word of general practice far and wide”, Dr Mann says.

To that end she also got involved in the Royal Flying Doctors Service Women’s Project, supporting rural areas, particularly around Hillston and Hay in western New South Wales. More recently, Dr Mann spends a month a year in Borroloola, a town on the McArthur River in the Northern Territory, about 50 km upstream from the Gulf of Carpentaria.

“Borroloola’s one of those towns that would love to have their own doctor but they don’t”, she says. “I thought that if I could give them a month a year, even that amount of continuity of care was not a bad thing.”

Politics is something that fires up Dr Mann, who was chair of the Central Sydney GP Division, and subsequently the first chair of the Inner West Sydney Medicare Local.

The recent federal Budget has given her plenty to be fired up about.

“The plans for copayments ‘which GPs can forgo’ leads us back to the 19th century, when the needy poor were beholden to the god-like doctor to give them free treatment”, she says.

“Or the American experience where free clinics must pop up to treat low socioeconomic status folk.

“This is so far from the Australia I love. General practice is not the place to get the cash for distant medical research.”

  • Cate Swannell


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