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Living large in Longreach

Cate Swannell
Med J Aust || doi: 10.5694/mja16.1212C1
Published online: 12 December 2016

Longreach is a 10-doctor town in the centre of Queensland, where a one-practice model is providing access to far-flung patients …

DR Emily Walpole once drove 410 km from Longreach to Emerald in outback Queensland because she had a craving for sushi. The bad news is sushi in Emerald is somewhat underwhelming.

“It was quite ordinary to be honest,” Dr Walpole tells the MJA. “But I got Maccas and KFC for the drive back, so that was okay.”

An 800 km round trip may seem extreme just for a meal, but in outback Queensland, it’s a trip that’s not even blinked at by the locals.

Longreach is about as close to the centre of Queensland as you can get. It’s 690 km west of Rockhampton on the coast, 1175 km northwest of Brisbane, 650 km southeast of Mt Isa, and 900 km east of Carrandotta, near the border with the Northern Territory.

A long way from just about anywhere, in other words.

But Longreach, home of the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame and the Qantas Founders Outback Museum, offers a unique environment for young doctors and doctors-in-training. Despite a population of just 3000 in summer – “6000 in winter,” says Dr Walpole – it is a 10-doctor town, all based at the Longreach Family Medical Practice, with a unique mix of private practice and public hospital appointments.

At 28, Dr Walpole is the youngest of the group, and a PGY3. She’s a Tasmanian who graduated from the University of Queensland at the end of 2013. In her third year of medical school she spent the entire clinical year in Roma, 480 km west-northwest of Brisbane, on a “long-look” program designed to give students a more substantial introduction to rural practice.

And it worked. This year she signed on for what was originally a 6-month stint in Barcaldine, population 1600, 110 km to the east of Longreach, but that’s turned into a 12-month contract in the larger town.

“I enjoy the more hands-on reality of rural practice,” Dr Walpole tells the MJA. “It’s a good mix of hospital and general practice.”

The Longreach doctors also service what they call the “Western corridor” – the wide swathe of country west and south of the town, including the communities of Winton (180 km northwest) and Isisford.

“I’ve done stints relieving the doctor in Winton (180 km northwest) when he’s needed support.

“Out here things are a lot more hands on, with more fun things to do. In the city I’d be handing patients on to the senior registrar or the specialist. Here we have to handle most things ourselves. I’m lucky to be part of a 10-doctor practice. The other doctors are very supportive and there’s always someone around to help.”

Although she generally enjoys life in a small rural community, Dr Walpole says there are drawbacks.

“There’s no anonymity, and that was a struggle for me, to be honest,” she says. “I knew theoretically that would be the case coming out here, but it was much more than I expected.

“It’s difficult, sometimes. You’ll be talking to a patient about their diabetes control and what they should and shouldn’t be eating, and then you’ll run in to them in the supermarket and realise that your trolley is full of junk food.”

At the end of her year in Longreach Dr Walpole is hoping to find work in Ingham on the north Queensland coast to be closer to her partner who lives in Townsville.

For Dr David Walker, however, Longreach has become his permanent home.

Dr Walker, 40, graduated from the University of Queensland in 2001, but he was always destined for rural practice. He grew up in Cooroy in the Sunshine Coast hinterland. His mother, Dr Carmel Walker, was a country GP in Mt Isa and married a country copper before the family moved south. Until the end of last year she was a senior doctor in Barcaldine. David is director of medical services at Longreach Hospital as well as boss of the wash at Longreach Family Medical Practice. His wife Clare is also a GP in the practice.

“Longreach is a wonderful town. Friends are very easy to make and there are plenty of extra activities – sporting and community – to get involved in,” Dr Walker tells the MJA.

“The fact is that some of our patients don’t have regular access to a GP and that means there are still some who have less than ideal health outcomes as a result.

“We run a one-practice model – working together, using video conferences and education sessions to improve our skills and give better care for our patients.

“The proof is in the pudding and we’re hopeful that we’re in a good position [to provide the best care possible]. But it is such an inherently fragile workforce out here. You can have the perfect workforce one minute and be behind the eight-ball the next.”

Despite the challenges the Walkers are happily embedded in Longreach life.

“I don’t think we’re going anywhere,” Dr Walker says. “We’ve built a house and our fourth child is on the way so we plan on staying a good while longer.”

  • Cate Swannell


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