From the natural waterholes in the Red Centre to the sprawling wetlands of Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks, as well as sharing a laugh with larrikin locals, the Northern Territory leaves an indelible and lifelong place in most visitors’ hearts. For GP Supervisor Dr Justin Coleman, he is one of those people who just can’t keep away from the lure of the NT.
Now in his third stint as a doctor in the Territory, Justin is currently based in the Wurrumiyanga township on Bathurst Island in the remote Tiwi Islands, a long way from his upbringing in the urban sprawl of Melbourne.
“I trained for three years in a Melbourne hospital, and then in 1996 joined the GP training program as a registrar,” said Justin.
“My wife and I decided to do something different and applied for Australian Volunteers International, because we thought we might go overseas and work.
“But we had a one-year-old son when they offered me a few placements; all but one were overseas in malarial regions, which we thought probably wasn’t the right move for our son.
“As a Melbournite, I had no experience of Aboriginal health or Aboriginal Australia at all, so I ended up taking a placement in Tennant Creek and doing my entire registrar training there with one supervisor.
Justin and his wife’s second stint in the NT was nine years later when he was a more senior GP and they had all three of their children in primary school.
“We went to Jabiru, Kakadu National Park, for two years and that was brilliant timing, for the kids to experience life in an Aboriginal community in primary school,” he explained.
“After another stint away, we came back to the NT about 18 months ago to Wurrumiyanga with an empty nest after our third son finished school. You could say we ran away from home!”
Justin has supervised more than 60 registrars since his time in Jabiru, and has also worked as a medical educator, with his main role at NTGPE educating supervisors.
“I never considered not being a supervisor. The very first time I worked in a practice which had a registrar, I felt I could teach them things having just Fellowed,” he said.
“I really am a firm believer that teaching is a natural form of doctoring. More than other specialties, General Practice allows you to become quite good at teaching.
“You’re forever teaching patients when they’re confused coming back from hospital, an outpatients visit or after surgery, and before you know it you become quite an expert in translating it all into a language they can understand.
“The more you talk to other doctors you also start explaining things, so to me it’s a very natural thing to be a teacher as a GP.”
Justin says that one of the drivers in him being a supervisor to up-and-coming doctors is that he becomes a better GP by doing it.
“My teaching over the years has made me question thousands of parts of medicine that I wouldn’t have looked up if I wasn’t teaching. It’s a natural way to keep up to date.
“If you have a career as a GP and never do anything outside of seeing the patients that walk in the door, it’s still a very valuable career, but I think teaching enables you to influence the thousands of patients who walk in other people’s doors.
“For me, it’s spreading the skills beyond just training up your own skills, which can ultimately influence the quality of general practice across Australia.”
Justin said supervising in a remote area such as the Tiwi Islands requires the GP to become more involved in the registrar’s life.
“In a city, a registrar will have their own support from family or friends, so they will do their work day, and then go home – their life is their life.
“It’s a very different thing in a remote area. When a registrar first arrives, they usually know no-one, and you’re a part of the community, so an important part of a supervisor’s role is to ensure the registrar’s happiness and comfort.
“This would include how to order groceries and introducing them to groups that would make them more settled. The aim is to ensure a registrar’s wellbeing is in a good place.
“The registrars who do best in remote areas are community minded. They are prepared to experience things in an unfamiliar area and test themselves.
“A rural area is a wonderful place to be, as there are many other people in the same boat.
“You don’t have to break into any established social groups – in remote areas, friendship groups are there waiting for you.”
Justin believes training as a GP in the Northern Territory provides a holistic way of practising medicine that simply cannot be found in a city environment.
“I think it’s a fabulous opportunity to get very good as a doctor, very quickly,” he said.
“As someone who spent my entire training in a remote area and then suddenly going back to the city, I realised that my experience had enabled me to become very confident in managing people from start to finish.
“I didn’t have to rely on early referrals to specialists or for tests to make my diagnoses and management, because you can’t rely on those remotely.
“You learn the ability to take on every problem from start to finish, and using other services when needed, as opposed to thinking you’re a referral pad to another service, or just to order tests.
“I think that holistic way of practising medicine is what keeps general practice fascinating into your 40s and 50s, rather than getting frustrated or dissatisfied with just referring people on.”
Justin’s talents don’t just end with a thermometer and stethoscope in hand. The talented man of words has made a name for himself as one of Australia’s top medical writers and editors.
“I enjoy writing and putting words together to be published,” he said.
“There aren’t that many doctors who dedicate years and years to writing, so I’ve ended up in this fairly small group of people who are finding ways to write about the things people want to read.
“It makes a nice balance from pure clinical work, but when I’m writing about medical concepts, I’m still using skills I’ve learnt as a GP.”
So, what is Justin’s advice for any junior doctors considering undertaking their GP training in the NT?
“Going remote is an adventure that pays off in spades, professionally and personally,” he said.
“Your competence creeps up on you unawares, and suddenly you're solving problems you used to run from.
“That feeling stays with you for your entire career... and it doesn't do your interpersonal skills any harm either!”
As Justin says, remote area practice is “the Rolls Royce of medicine”: an unparalleled opportunity to hone your knowledge and technique, for people who are deeply grateful for your help.