Gongs to recognise GPs’ selfless service

14 minute read

Almost a dozen inspiring family docs have received honours for their life's work.

A new batch of GPs have been recognised for their work both inside the practice room and out in the community this Australia Day.

Of the 11 doctors, eight are being appointed as Member of the Order of Australia (AM), two are being awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) and one is receiving the Public Service Medal.

South Australian rural generalist Dr Jennifer Delima was appointed AM in recognition of her contributions to addiction and forensic medicine in remote communities.

A multi-hyphenate clinician, Dr Delima has fellowed with both RACGP and ACCRM, as well as the addiction medicine chapter of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the clinical forensic faculty of the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia.

“It’s a pain in the butt when it comes to the CPD, let me tell you,” she said.

Dr Delima – unlike most rural doctors – grew up and trained in the city.

Halfway through a fellowship in emergency medicine, she decided to put her skills to the test and see whether her training would carry through in an environment “where there wasn’t all my fancy equipment”.

Which is how she ended up, in April of 2000, moving to Walungurru, a town on the WA-NT border.

“At that time, it was considered – and I think it’s still considered – one of the most remote communities, distance-wise, from anything else on the NT border,” Dr Delima told The Medical Republic.

“I tell you, that was the most fantastic thing that could have ever fallen in my path.”

Under mentoring from Indigenous leaders and health workers, Dr Delima said she enjoyed becoming part of the community and fell in love with general practice.

In later years, she moved to Alice Springs and tried out emergency work again, but found it had lost its charm.

“Once you’ve actually tasted the challenge [of GP] and that community engagement, it’s really hard to push it back in a smaller box,” Dr Delima said.

When she was tapped on the shoulder to help out in custodial medicine, she leaped at the chance.

“I think anywhere where there’s hardship and poverty in a population or there’s vulnerability, you are actually free to deliver your healthcare services and your skills as you learn them at uni, with all the idealism,” said Dr Delima.

Working in prison medicine, she found herself dealing with a high volume of patients with addiction issues. She did her RACP fellowship in addiction medicine.

At some point, Dr Delima was also asked to take on patients who had been sexually assaulted; she eventually became director of the Sexual Assault Referral Centre in Alice Springs.

This, of course, inspired her to do yet another fellowship, this one with the RCPA.

It was her general practice and emergency training, Dr Delima said, that gave her the foundations to take every opportunity to upskill when she saw a need in the community.

Understandably, Dr Delima is currently taking time out from medicine to “refuel the tank”, but is continuing to work with ACRRM as a remote GP supervisor, while simultaneously developing a rural-specific drug and alcohol program.

Associate Professor John Dearin, a GP in Lithgow, was appointed AM for his contributions to community health in the small Blue Mountains town.

“I often say to my students, most doctors live two suburbs away from their patients so they don’t have to encounter them [in public],” he told TMR.

“Whereas here  I cannot get out of the shopping centre after going to buy something without at least having one conversation on most days.

“One feels very much part of the community.”

Professor Dearin has been a doctor for close to 50 years, and a GP for the past 25.

A good chunk of his medical career has also been spent working as a staff specialist at the Lithgow and Oberon Correctional Centres, something he considers a privilege.

“Prison medicine is important to me and I’m pleased to say that one of my former students has actually gone into prison medicine – I haven’t influenced many,” Professor Dearin said.

“Prison medicine isn’t – if I could use the vulgar term – it’s not sexy medicine, but I think it’s very rewarding and I think it’s so important to do it well.”

In his limited spare time, Professor Dearin is also the rector of a small parish church.

Another AM is Perth-based Professor Helen Milroy, a proud Palyku woman recognised as the first Indigenous Australian to become a medical doctor. 

A professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Perth Children’s Hospital and former GP/consultant in childhood sexual abuse at Princess Margaret Hospital, Professor Milroy believes general practice can play an important role in this area.

“I think there’s a huge scope for mental health work within general practice,” she said. “One reason why I ultimately decided to specialise in psychiatry was the amount of mental health work I was doing as a GP, particularly for children and families in their early development where things can go wrong.

“Often a GP is their first port of call when people are distressed or have any concerns and if they have a good relationship with their GP, then they’re more prepared to open up about their really personal worries – and sometimes these things are very personal so it’s difficult for people to know who to turn to. If they have a good relationship then it’s also a first opportunity for someone to be able to speak about their other concerns that aren’t necessarily just health-related.”

Professor Milroy is a former chair of the National Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health Committee, and a former president and board member of the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association. 

She was also a commissioner for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse between 2013 and 2017.

Former Queensland deputy chief health officer Dr Sonya Bennett was appointed AM for her work in public health leadership, including throughout the pandemic.

Originally a GP for the Navy, Dr Bennett moved into public health medicine after working with soldiers who returned from East Timor with malaria.  

Seeing how the preventative medicine aspects of general practice worked on a wider scale, she said, was what pushed her to pursue public health.

“As a general practitioner, you’re dealing with individuals, families and the community,” she told TMR.

“On a ship, you’re literally dealing with a discrete community.

“Things like gastro outbreaks were not uncommon, and the response to that is really a public health one – as is having a role in health promotion, food safety and water, sanitation on the ships, those sorts of things.”

Over the first two years of the pandemic, Dr Bennett was second in command of Queensland’s public health response and has since been appointed deputy Chief Medical Officer of Australia.

She hopes to continue to foster the partnership at the intersections of general practice and public health.

“There’s so much other public health at work that went on before [the pandemic] and will continue to go on, and primary care plays an important role in that,” she said.

“For example, childhood vaccinations, reporting and managing mandatory notifiable diseases, chronic disease prevention, cancer screening, sexual and reproductive health, appropriate antimicrobial prescribing and mental health support.”

Londonite-turned-Canberran GP Dr Trina Gregory was appointed AM for her significant service to general practice.

Dr Gregory has been heavily involved in eHealth, working with the Australian Digital Health Agency on various projects and serving as chair of the RACGP’s specific interest group on eHealth.

She has also been on the National Child Safe Sector Leadership Group, which falls under the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Dr Sadhana Mahajani, a former community physician in the Northern Territory, was appointed AM in recognition of her contributions to community health.

In 1974, Dr Mahajani helped establish Darwin’s first community health centre, which was destroyed by Cyclone Tracey in December of that same year.

Until it was rebuilt, she practised medicine from a demountable building on the grounds of a local primary school.

As well as being a consultant geriatrician, Dr Mahajani worked in drug and alcohol rehabilitation, palliative care, breast screening, Alzheimer’s support and sexual assault support services.

She was also named Senior Australian of the Year (Northern Territory) in 2013.

Dr Roger Sexton, an SA-based rural general practitioner since 1981, was appointed AM for his significant service to medical practitioners through health initiatives, and to professional associations. 

In 2010 he co-founded Doctors’ Health SA and is its medical director; he was also medical director of Doctors’ Health Northern Territory between 2016 and 2021. He doesn’t just look after his patients, he takes care of his peers too.

“I think we’ve all got an obligation to come to work in as good a shape as we can,” he said, “and to make sure that we come to work physiologically well, well trained and rested. That’s critical and no one can do anything about that except themselves.”

Not surprisingly then, Dr Sexton has looked to improving the way workplaces operate as a way to ensure the sustainability of general practice.

“I think the workplace is a critical way of bringing out the best in people but it often suppresses GPs, who go there with good intentions but find the work environment is difficult. I think covid exposed that the appointment billing system and the way general practices are often set up, the infrastructure, has been quite inadequate and not fit for purpose any more.

“There’s so much that can be done using data, research, and general practice as an IT hub, having outreach models of care that take team functional practice out into the home and so on.”

Since 2019, Dr Sexton has also been chair of the Australasian Doctors’ Health Network and a board director with Doctors’ Health Services from 2015 until last year. Since 2021, he has been medical editor of the AMA’s medicSA.

Dr Michael Tedeschi, who is based at the Australian National University (ANU) was also appointed AM.

Dr Tedeschi spends half his time practising at the ANU medical clinic, which primarily looks after the students.

“I’ve been there for 20 to 25 years and I really enjoy it,” he said, “but when I teach medical students, I tell them the general practice I work in today bears no resemblance whatsoever to that when I was a medical student. And I’ve no doubt the general practice today’s students will be practising in or seeing in their own lives will bear no resemblance to the general practice of today.”

Dr Tedeschi has worked as a GP, in a range of roles, for around 40 years, but has also specialised in addiction medicine.

He worked with the ACT Drug and Alcohol Services within Canberra Health Services from 1985 and 1989, and again from 1993. He is also a research presenter within several national and international forums, including the Australasian Professional Society on Alcohol and Other Drugs. 

He has a clear idea of where general practice needs to be heading.

“To survive, the role is going to have to be shared with multidisciplinary teams, with nurses, with walk-in clinics and with pharmacies, but it’s also going to have to be made more attractive to medical students,” Dr Tedeschi said.

Victoria-based and recently retired aged care GP, Dr Elizabeth McNaughton, was awarded an OAM for services to medicine.

“From a young age, general practice was always my goal and it has, I suppose, fulfilled what my vision of GP had always been, which was basically that opportunity to treat patients,” said Dr McNaughton, who began practising in 1989 and spent much of her career working in the aged care sector.

She also worked as a teacher and supervisor with Monash University medical students who were undergoing placements in general practice.

“I feel really very disheartened and saddened by the fact that the traditional style of general practice that I’ve really enjoyed is being lost. I’ve felt dedicated to this vision all my life to the point where I often put my patients ahead of my time and earnings,” she said.

While Dr McNaughton worked as a GP at several aged care centres for 33 years, she sees the future of caring for aged care residents changing dramatically, including practices specialising in going out to an aged care centre or even multiple centres.

“There are different models here, and some doctors, as a workforce, have set up businesses where they will visit aged care facilities throughout the suburbs,” she said. “So that’s a different model.”

Rural GP Dr Bernard Chapman was awarded an OAM for service to community health.

Currently the owner of Moora Health Centre in WA, Dr Chapman has volunteered with a local drug action group, worked as a first aid trainer and counsellor with St John’s Ambulance and since 2004 has volunteered with International Medical Volunteering.

Possibly inspired by how little sleep a typical GP gets, Dr Chapman founded the Moora Bed Race and Street Festival in 2007.

This fundraiser for Moora YouthCARE includes entertainment and activities for the kids, including Father Christmas passing through on a fire engine, and a parade of decorated beds followed by races to find the fasted bed pushers.

Dr Chapman also has links with the local faith-based community through his work as a lay preacher at the Moora Seventh Day Adventist Church.

ACT-based clinician Dr Sally Singleton was awarded a Public Service Medal for her work in the public health space.

Dr Singleton has fellowed with ACRRM, the RACGP and the Australasian Faculty of Public Health Medicine.

Through the pandemic, she worked with Canberra’s covid assistance team to manage high-risk facilities like residential aged care, correctional facilities and hospitals.

Her work has strengthened relationships between ACT Health, non-profits and private healthcare providers.

Emeritus Professor Stephen Duckett received an honorary mention in the Member of the Order of Australia.

Professor Duckett, one of Australia’s foremost health policy experts, has held a range of advisory positions across many different bodies and is set to retire next month as director of the Grattan Institute’s health program, a role he has held since 2012. 

Professor Duckett was a member of the Strengthening Medicare Taskforce, established by the Albanese government last year, whose recommendations are being eagerly awaited.

Professor Duckett has some clear thoughts about what has ailed general practice in the past decade: “We had a government that was asleep at the wheel in terms of general practice policy,” he said.

“So if you look at the patient mix, the epidemiology of the Australian population has changed a lot, meaning that continuity of care and the continuity of oversight of patients’ needs is more important. And of course, the business structure of practice has changed, with rapid corporatisation of the marketplace.

“There’s been a changed ownership of general practice, but that change has not really been incorporated into policy thinking looking to the future.”

Dr Norman Swan, Australia’s best-known health journalist and commentator,also received an honorary mention in the Member of the Order of Australia.

Dr Swan has covered health and science for ABC radio and television for four decades, and increased his audience in 2020 with the launch of ABC’s Coronacast podcast, which he co-hosted.

He has received a swathe of rewards for his reporting, including a Gold Walkley and three other Walkleys.

“My personal view is that some sort of solution that increases the salary component of general practice is going to make a difference,” he said.

“We probably need multiple models of general practice, but we need the same sort of assessment of outcomes. And if you were to offer young graduates a staff specialist salary with the same perks that staff specialists get to go into general practice, there would be a queue wanting to go into general practice, not a shortage.”

Lieutenant General John Frewen, who many will recognise as the face of the national vaccine taskforce, was appointed AO in the military division.  

Ms Juliet Brown OAM, former director of medical indemnity provider MIGA, was appointed AM for her services to the insurance industry.

Anyone can nominate any Australian for an award in the Order of Australia.

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