02 December 2019

Pioneering Territory GP honoured for service to supervision


From age 12, Dr David Welch knew he wanted to be a general practitioner; it was as though a career as a generalist was as inherent in him as was his desire to teach. And so, since arriving in Darwin in 1979, teaching has been the bedrock of Dr Welch’s work as a junior doctor and GP, having led lectures, examinations and supervised future GPs for the past 40 years. He has recently been recognised for his dedication to GP supervision by General Practice Supervisors Australia, and we caught up with Dr Welch to find out why GP training continues to be such an important part of his work.

Dr Welch made the move to Darwin with the ink still drying on the testamur for his University of New South Wales medical degree, but it was not his first foray into medicine in the tropical north. As an enthusiastic medical student, he would make the trip north on university breaks to sit in with experienced doctors to learn their craft. After completing three years of hospital training between the old Darwin hospital and the then new Royal Darwin Hospital, he joined Stuart Park Surgery in 1982 – the practice he now owns.

“As there was no GP training in Darwin at the time, I asked the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners if I could join them as a medical student prior to my graduation in order to attend their teaching sessions,” Dr Welch said.

“No medical student had ever approached them before, so they made a new membership category for me, and I became the first affiliate or associate member. After forty years, I am now a life member.”

It was in 1980 that, as a junior hospital resident, Dr Welch travelled to Sydney to sit the RACGP exam.

“There were around 16 candidates for the whole of NSW. It was not compulsory to do the exams then, and few doctors sat it,” Dr Welch said. “It was very difficult to pass – half failed, but I passed, and was the first Northern Territory doctor to sit the exam.”

But Dr Welch would have to wait another four years, after he had amassed enough professional experience as a GP, to be awarded his RACGP fellowship. It was at this time he said he began teaching the first trainee GPs in the NT under what was then known as the Family Medicine Program.

“In 1982, I joined Ted Giblin at Stuart Park Surgery, who was also interested in teaching medical students and junior doctors,” Dr Welch said.

“Until the late 1980s there were no college exams held in Darwin. It was then that I took on the role of supervising the written exams locally.

“The first clinical exams were held in Darwin in 1992 and were run by the South Australian faculty, with most of the examiners coming from Adelaide to Darwin to facilitate the exams. We used real patients with real illnesses for the clinical exam in those days.”

Dr Welch said 1994 was a landmark year for RACGP exams, and for the NT in particular.

“The clinical exam changed format that year, and for the first time, all the examiners for the NT exam were from the NT,” Dr Welch said. “The College asked me to be the Exam Panel Chairman for the NT, and I was trained to teach examiners the exam.”

When asked why he became a GP supervisor, Dr Welch said it was because he had an inherent gene that seemed to compel him to teach.

“I enjoy collating information and making it easy for the recipient to understand,” Dr Welch said.

“Watching doctors develop and acquire the skills to become a great GP is incredibly rewarding, which is why I put the time and energy needed into getting every one of my registrars to fellowship.”

Dr Welch said the Northern Territory was a unique place to train because it offered a very broad range of patients and presentations.

“The medicine here is more raw and gutsier,” Dr Welch said. “What I enjoy most about being a GP in the NT are the great non-medical chats I have with my patients.”

“We get to talk about all kinds of great things, like the best fishing and camping spots, and wonderful places to see around the Territory.”

Dr David Welch