The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on the essential role that general practitioners play in Australian communities. We caught up with Dr Sue Wells (BMBS ’89), a family GP in southern Adelaide who is also involved in supervising GP registrars and medical students.
Why did you choose general practice?
I was attracted to the notion that it was one of the only areas of medicine where you can follow the patient throughout their life rather than be involved in episodic care. People have such fascinating lives and stories and as a general practitioner I feel privileged to know so much about so many facets of my patients’ lives. Now that I have been in practice almost 30 years it is not uncommon for me to treat three or even four generations of families. This is a very rewarding and special aspect of being a family doctor.
What are some of the biggest changes you have seen in general practice since you began?
Computerisation and technology and the addition of practice nurses to the general practice team have probably been some of the biggest changes I have noticed in general practice over the last 30 years. Other changes have been the much bigger focus on preventive care (assisted by the uptake of skilled nurses into surgeries). Much of my work today is about aiding patients to avoid future health issues. Advances in cancer care have also changed enormously in the time I have been in practice.
On a less positive note, the struggle to always get adequate funding and timely care and programs to groups such as the elderly, those with disabilities and those with mental health conditions has been prominent throughout my 30-year career.
What have been some of your proudest career moments?
My proudest career moments relate to personal thank you cards or notes that I receive from patients and their families. General practice is largely about dealing with people on a one to one basis. Knowing that you have assisted someone in a positive way is extremely rewarding and a heartfelt personal thank you is testament to this.
How has COVID-19 impacted the way you do your work? Will some of these changes continue to be part of the way you operate?
The pandemic has been the biggest challenge for general practice in my almost 30-year career. To have to suddenly upskill and change the way we consult in the matter of a few weeks has been stressful as well as rewarding. Rapid conversion to telehealth with no planning has been a huge job. Juggling the need to protect our staff, our patients and continue to care for the health needs of our community has turned our world – like everyone’s – upside down. Our once cosy and inviting consulting rooms have been cleared out, magazines, toys and clutter removed. Never would I have thought vaccinations, swabs and assessment of patients would be happening in our car park with patients remaining in their cars.
In South Australia the majority of our recent COVID-19 patients were managed by general practitioners in the community which indicates that GPs are often quiet achievers in the health system.
After the pandemic I think we will be nervous to return completely to our old ways. For a long time we will be much more acutely aware of droplet precautions, which will keep our consulting rooms much less cluttered and more clinical. We are likely to be much more cautious when treating patients with infective conditions and the use of protective equipment will be the new normal. Telehealth will hopefully continue in some form, as many patients have found the convenience of accessing their doctor by phone or video link is very appealing.
What advice do you have for someone contemplating a career in general practice?
It is probably similar to the advice I give my children about their careers – be enthusiastic, kind, proud, inquisitive and remember that you need to continue learning the whole way through you career. Interests outside of your career are also a key to success and a way to avoid burnout. For me it is a love of reading, travel (challenging right now but fortunately South Australia has a lot to offer!) and my goal to complete the Heysen Trail over the next few years.