Nine primary care docs honoured on King’s Bday

11 minute read

This year’s gong winners range from a doctor who turned around a rural town’s health service to a long-standing pillar of GP education.

This year’s crop of King’s Birthday Honours List recipients and appointees included eight current or former GPs and one primary care-focused medical administrator alongside some other famous faces.

All told, there were four GP Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) awardees, three GPs appointed Members of the Order of Australia (AM) and two who received Public Service Medals (PSM).

Perth-based GP Dr Janice Bell was one of the AM appointees and will be familiar to many as the former long-standing head of WAGPET, WA’s regional GP training organisation.

She was CEO of the organisation for more than 20 years and told The Medical Republic that she had seen rural medicine flourish in WA over that time.

“I saw GPs become teachers, mentors, supervisors in droves and get the career support and education … to do that,” Dr Bell said.

“When students and GP registrars didn’t have to come to Perth and could get education and training in their own town, that was profound.

“The respect that GPs found for themselves, not only as GPs but as mentors, supervisors, trainers and educators for the next generation of GPs … that really started in 2001 [with the regionalisation of training].”

With the GP training reins back in the hands of the colleges, WAGPET is now in the process of winding up.

Dr Bell is currently working with various doctor training stakeholders as a consultant.

Also among the AM appointees was Dr Beres Wenck, a Brisbane-based GP with special interest in paediatrics, geriatrics, medical indemnity and cardiac rehabilitation.

A genuine jack-of-all-trades, Dr Wenck said she learned some of her best GP skills in her work outside the consulting room.

“I was very much a mother who went to tuckshop and did all the lovely things, so a lot of my early skills came from doing things for the kindergarten and the school,” she told TMR.

She also gave credit to her colleagues in the medical community.

Dr Wenck is currently working on a program that she hopes will encourage younger GPs to take up aged care work.

“[Geriatrics] is a vital part of general practice and it’s extremely rewarding,” she said.

“It’s very difficult to look after people with chronic and complex care needs, and you need a lot of negotiation skills, but it’s very rewarding.”

Her husband, the late Dr Keith Woodhead, was also a well-known sports doctor and GP in Brisbane.

Professor Katina D’Onise, who holds dual GP and public health fellowships, was also appointed AM this King’s Birthday in recognition of her work in the epidemiology space.

“The best public health work really can’t be seen, it is just changing the environment in a gradual way that encourages people to make healthy choices,” she told TMR.

“So to be nominated and recognised for public health is completely unexpected.”

During the pandemic, Professor D’Onise was instrumental in setting up the digital text messaging system that the entire country came to know very well.

Since that time, the Adelaide-based doctor has been the SA Health lead on termination of pregnancy law reform.

Professor D’Onise was not the only dual public health/general practice fellowship holder to be honoured, with Canberra-based doctor Dr Stephanie Davis being awarded a PSM.

Dr Davis started her career in general practice in the Northern Territory, where she worked with remote Indigenous communities.

After segueing into public health, she did a stint with the World Health Organization during the days of swine flu.

When the covid pandemic rolled into town, Dr Davis was both working in general practice and teaching epidemiology in Canberra.

“There was obviously a big need for people with experience in public health, particularly infectious diseases and epidemiology, but there was also a need for people with knowledge of primary care because it was such an important part of the response,” she told TMR.

“I got asked to come and help out in the Department of Health, and I have been poking about there ever since.”

Her more recent work has involved the Medicare urgent care clinic rollout, as well as the formulation of the incoming MyMedicare aged care incentive.

“I’m really grateful and privileged to have been honoured with this … but I think there’s so many people who worked so hard during the pandemic,” Dr Davis said.

“I think of all the GPs and the primary care nurses and everyone else who just turned up to work every day and saw patients and dealt with the non-sexy parts of the pandemic.”

Associate Professor Rex Prabhu, a medical administration specialist, was awarded a PSM in recognition of his work in taking the Victorian town of Swan Hill from zero doctors to having 30 full-time permanent medical professionals.

When he moved to the rural town just five years ago, the entire hospital was run by locum doctors.

“I even thought to myself, ‘should I get out of here?’” he told TMR.

Thanks to Professor Prabhu’s work with the Rural Workforce Agency Victoria, Charles Sturt University and ACRRM, the town just welcomed its largest group of final-year GP registrars.

His secret? Building relationships and fostering career development.

“One of [the visiting] doctors came to me looking for purpose, and I matched that purpose with a position in the hospital,” Professor Prabhu said.

He encouraged the young doctor to apply to be the clinical lead of emergency, and offered to catch up with him each week while he learned the role.

“[I told him that] it was going to be a tough gig … and that I know it’s not going to [get easier] overnight, but that together we could shape this up to something,” the medical administrator said.

That doctor stayed in the role for three years, ultimately buying a house and settling down in the town.

“The outcome for the community … is my reward as a medical administrator,” said Professor Prabhu.

“Doctors on the coalface see one patient at a time, whereas a medical administrator has impact on the whole system and the population of the place that we work in.”

Having retired from fulltime work a couple of years ago, long-time flying doctor Dr Stephen Alan Langford was “really surprised” by the news of his OAM for his service to medicine, to rural health and to medical education this year. 

“I’m also honoured and grateful because it’s a recognition of what was pretty much an overwhelming, all-encompassing commitment for about four decades to the flying doctor service and rural health,” he told TMR

“It makes you reflect a little bit on just how much time some doctors devote to their work.” 

After taking up an, initially, only one year-long position with the Royal Flying Doctor Service in far northwest Western Australia in 1983, instead of heading to Antarctica Dr Langford continued his work for the service for 35 years. 

“The organisation is sometimes seen by colleagues as GPs in Akubras flying around picking up injured stockmen in a biplane,” he said. 

“But, in fact, it’s a really sophisticated high-quality, comprehensive aerial medical service that provides outreach clinics, aeromedical retrieval and has even provided telehealth services since 1935. 

“There were all these wonderful opportunities to implement new ideas over the course of a couple of decades, with the onset of technology.” 

Dr Langford wrote a book – The Leading Edge – Innovation, technology and people in Australia’s Royal Flying Doctor Service in 2016 to ensure the history didn’t get lost when he left the service. 

“I was fortunate that I had a tendency to introduce new ideas or do things and then seek forgiveness afterwards.  

“I managed to do a lot of good stuff without getting into too much trouble. 

“I’m really proud and I hope I’ve left a legacy of people and systems that continue passionately to provide a great service to people in remote areas. 

“It’s one of the few jobs I know where every day you knew that it made a difference to people’s lives.” 

After retiring from active clinical medical work, Dr Langford has now turned his focus to ceramics.  

“After 40 or 50 years of completely suppressed creativity because you’re working so hard, it is suddenly fantastic, I’ve really gotten into art and sculpting and I’m loving it.”  

Kirribilli-based GP Dr Penny Browne was awarded an OAM for her service to medicine as a general practitioner. 

“It’s a great honour, and it’s a wonderful reflection on general practice that GPs are rewarded in this way and get recognition for the work that we do and the leadership that we’ve shown,” she told TMR

As well as being a passionate GP and GP educator, Dr Browne has worked in the medico-legal space as Avant Mutual’s CMO from 2015-2022 and now as a non-executive director. A highlight of the CMO role was helping doctors navigate the constantly changing space throughout covid. 

Dr Browne is also a vocal general practice advocate and has been in Canberra making noise about the “tragic” removal of prevocational general practice placements program. 

“We need to expose junior doctors to quality general practice so that they can get inspired. 

“We also need to stop fragmenting care, some of what’s going on now makes my hair curl more than it already is. 

“With all the reviews – pharmacy prescribing, referrals being considered from allied health and from nurse practitioners – we are further fragmenting patient care to the detriment of patient health outcomes.” 

Dr Browne said GPs need more than a “pat on the head”, general practice needs to be recognised as a “crucial” part of the health system. 

Beyond her work as a GP, Dr Browne said her career highlight would have to be interviewing the author of Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, among others, Atul Gawande. 

Dr Anh Nguyen, who arrived as a refugee in Australia from Vietnam in 1981, was awarded an OAM for his service to the Vietnamese community of Western Australia. 

After arriving in Australia, having already trained and practiced medicine in Vietnam, Dr Nguyen was forced to retake his medical studies and is now the principal and proprietor of his own medical practice in Perth. 

“A medical career is in my blood, I can do it easily,” he told TMR

“But after hours, I spend all my time representing the community and lobbying parliament.” 

Dr Nguyen currently acts as the president of the WA chapter of Vietnamese Community in Australia, coordinator of the Vietnamese Community School of WA, convener of a Vietnamese radio program, a board member of Girrawheen high school and also a member of Wanneroo’s multicultural advisory group. 

He has also made significant contributions to the Vietnamese Boat People Monument of Gratitude Project and the Long Tan Peace Park in Koondoola. 

“I wanted to leave something for the next generation,” he said. 

“The first monument is to remind them of the ordeal that their parents or grandparents went through to come to a western country like Australia and the other is to mark the end of the Vietnam War.” 

ACT-based GP Dr Chi Wing Lai was awarded an OAM for service to medicine as a general practitioner and to the community. 

Dr Lai’s extensive career in general practice spanned from 1967 to 2022 and ran in tandem to a career as an educator at ANU medical school and at the USyd Canberra campus. 

In 2010, Dr Lai co-founded the Sophan Kith Education Fund, which raised money for schools in Cambodia, and was also a volunteer at the Indo-China Refugee Association between 1975-1994. 

Some of the other recognisable names included on the list were former TGA chief Professor John Skerritt, who was appointed AM, and covid-era premiers Daniel Andrews and Mark McGowan, both of whom were appointed Companions of the Order of Australia (AC).

Anyone can nominate any Australian for an award in the Order of Australia. If you know someone worthy, nominate them now at

The full list of GP winners is as follows:

Dr Janice Bell, AM

Dr Beres Wenck (Woodhead), AM

Professor Katina D’Onise, AM

Dr Stephanie Davis, PSM

Associate Professor Rex Prabhu (Medical Administrator), PSM

Dr Penny Browne, OAM

Dr Stephen Langford, OAM

Dr Chi Lai, OAM

Dr Anh Nguyen, OAM

Note: we try our best to identify every GP and rural generalist physician receiving a King’s Birthday Honour. Sometimes we miss a couple – email to notify us of anyone who has been overlooked.

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