Jessica Hing’s story is proof that trying something new can send you on a completely unexpected path. This former Sydneysider, who has recently wrapped up her medical degree with the Australian National University, is now packing up her life in Canberra to make tracks to the Northern Territory to work as a hospital intern. The experience that changed the trajectory of Jessica’s life was joining the John Flynn Placement Program (JFPP) and completing three stints in some of the most remote communities in the Northern Territory. Read on for her full story.
Living, studying and completing medical student placements in our nation’s capital, Jessica came to the realisation that she wanted to forge a medical career that made a difference. She applied for and was accepted into the JFPP, completing two placements in Maningrida and another in Timber Creek. Both communities are ranked at seven on the Modified Monash Model, meaning it doesn’t get any more remote than these locations.
Jessica explained that a lot of her family members were doctors, and one of the things that drew her to medicine was the exciting variety of opportunities including clinical, advocacy and academic work.
“I was interested in leading a career that is not only challenging, but also valued by society,” Jessica said. “I wanted to be able to pride myself in knowing I was doing something good for those around me.”
Jessica said she enjoyed her JFPP experiences in the Territory so much that she decided to make the move from Canberra to Darwin in 2020 to take up a position as an intern at the Royal Darwin Hospital.
“Timber Creek was incredibly isolated, which I found hard at times,” Jessica said. “When I was on placement in Maningrida, I felt completely integrated into the community.”
She described how, on a quiet weekend away from the bustle of her placement, an Aboriginal health worker from the clinic took Jessica out to her traditional homeland. She explored the untouched beaches and tried kangaroo tail cooked on the fire in the traditional way.
Jessica said that, while her experience on placement in Maningrida was hugely enriching, language and cultural barriers proved a challenge at times.
“As a medical student, you do so much training to take good histories,” Jessica said.
“This completely changes when people have different levels of medical literacy and an entirely different cultural view of medicine, not to mention when English is often their fifth or sixth language.”
When asked about the differences she had seen between remote and urban medicine, Jessica said patients in remote communities of the NT were much sicker than the patients she had seen in Canberra.
“I saw a lot of infectious diseases and found I was including things like syphilis and acute rheumatic fever in my differential diagnoses,” Jessica said. “These are things you don’t really see in Canberra.”
“Sadly, patients in remote areas don’t tend to present to the clinic until they are very unwell.”
Jessica described seeing not just illnesses that were very different to those she saw in Canberra but also more severe.
“I also had the chance to see a lot of interesting lung pathology, including many relatively young people, 40- and 50-year-olds, with end stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” Jessica said.
A typical day on placement saw Jessica kick off with an 8 am staff meeting, during which the GPs, along with nurses and Aboriginal health workers from the clinic, would review the patient recall list and she would be allocated suitable cases for the day. From 9 am until 5 pm, Jessica would see patients in her own consulting room and take x-rays with the support and guidance of her GP supervisors.
“The staff out in Maningrida were great – whenever they came across an interesting case or they thought there was a valuable learning opportunity, they would call me in to observe the consultation or procedure,” Jessica said.
Jessica said she didn’t struggle to fill her down time during her placement in Maningrida, with touch football matches, exploring the local beaches and even a cultural festival packing her social schedule.
“Without having done my JFPP placements in the Northern Territory, I would never have considered moving to Darwin,” Jessica said.
“I was offered an intern place in Canberra, but I chose Darwin instead because I wanted a bigger challenge.
“There’s a great need for medical care in the NT, which presents great opportunities to help and learn from patients who are incredibly sick. I think the opportunity to make a real impact will be hugely satisfying.”
When asked what her best advice for medical students looking to head to the Territory for a placement as part of the John Flynn program was, Jessica counselled to go into the experience with an open mind.
“The orientation program coordinated by the NT program team was fantastic, especially in terms of preparing us for the cultural issues we would face on placement,” Jessica said.
She encouraged prospective students to be curious and ask lots of questions to get the most out of their experience both professionally and personally.