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Balancing act

Cate Swannell
Med J Aust
Published online: 20 October 2014

Dr Liz Marles has just ended her stint as president of the RACGP and can now go back to full-time practice. She has loved her time in the “big chair” but her first love is calling

DR Liz Marles sits back in the armchair on the fifth floor of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners’ Melbourne headquarters and gazes out at the view.

“I’m going to miss all this, to be honest”, she says.

The view is stunning — the Melbourne Cricket Ground in post-grand final peace, AAMI Park across the rail lines, and parklands stretching away to Punt Road and the Melbourne Tennis Centre — but it’s unlikely Dr Marles means just the locale.

As of 9 October, at the start of the RACGP’s annual conference, Dr Marles is the immediate past president of the College, passing the baton to West Australian GP, Adjunct Professor Frank Jones.

It’s been a hectic two years in the big chair for Dr Marles.

“It has been a bit of a roller-coaster ride, but I have really enjoyed my time”, she laughs. “Being president means being in the fast lane and you never quite know what’s around the corner.”

A change in government, major changes in health policy, changes to funding support for general practice and training, not to mention keeping a lid on the public perceptions of Ebola, have all been part of the ride.

“It’s been a fantastic learning opportunity for me and I’ve certainly done things that I would never have done otherwise.”

One of those things was appearing on SBS Insight recently, sitting next to the representative from the Pharmacy Guild — an attempt by the broadcaster to generate a little conflict over pharmacists’ desire to take over some things, like vaccinations, that have been the purview of GPs.

“Yes, SBS were keen for that to develop into something”, she says, “but I think we did okay with it and managed to avoid trouble”.

Now that her stint as RACGP president is done, Dr Marles is keen to get back to her surgery in North Sydney where she has “a few little projects” of her own on the go.

Her path to medicine was a little longer than most. She was a high school teacher in Melbourne, teaching biology and maths, before moving to NSW to study medicine at the University of Newcastle at the age of 28.

“I was always pretty keen to be far more hands-on with my science”, she says of her teaching days. “But I think it takes a fair bit of maturity and I was probably far too young when I left school to make that kind of decision.”

Studying medicine as a mature age student has its benefits, Dr Marles believes.

“I think it’s a lot easier to do medicine when you’re older, in terms of dealing with people and their lives and their complexities and not getting too flustered by it”, she says.

“The downside is that medical training is so long that you’re still training into your forties, and that means that other things like having families and making some of those other life choices need to somehow integrate with that.

“We are getting better at adapting to that. There’s more opportunities for women to job share in specialty training.

“Medicine is also about life experience. And coming to it with a little bit of life experience does make it a whole lot easier.”

Part of surviving medicine is about balance, Dr Marles says.

“It’s about having other interests, about having friends who are not doctors, it’s actually being part of a community.”

General practice was always going to be the path she followed once she started out on the medical path, however.

“I really love talking to people”, Dr Marles says.

“I enjoy their stories. I feel like I learn as much from them, probably more, than they get from me.”

There’s an intellectual facet to that decision as well as a gut feeling, she maintains.

“I’ve got broad interests. I found most things really interesting and the thought that I would never do [those things] again — that I would have nothing to do with obstetrics and family medicine, or that I wouldn’t do any mental health again — I felt like I’d be losing something.

“So general practice had huge appeal.”

Just like Dr Kamerman, Dr Marles particularly values the unique nature of general practice over other specialties.

“We’re very privileged really. We have long-term relationships with our patients. The trust and the confidence that you get from that is huge”, she says.

“People tell me things that I don’t think I would ever hear in any other context. They come to me at the most vulnerable time in their life and to be able to really assist people then is a huge privilege.

“It’s something that I value every day when I go to work.”

The full interview with Dr Liz Marles can be seen on video at https://www.mja.com.au/multimedia or heard via podcast at https://www.mja.com.au/multimedia/podcasts or iTunes.

  • Cate Swannell


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