No matter where medical training took her, Tasmania’s Dr Jane Cooper always seemed destined to ply her trade at home.
Many rural GPs throughout Australia grew up outside of the major cities, and more still love the rural way of life. For Dr Jane Cooper, a GP in the north-west of Tasmania and the RACGP’s 2016 GP of the Year, life as a rural healthcare professional is more personal.
‘I am currently living in Devonport and I actually grew up and went to school here,’ she told Good Practice. Dr Cooper’s love of general practice was also first kindled in Devonport, where her mother worked as a practice manager.
‘When I was at university I would do some weekend reception work and support one of the older GPs,’ she said. ‘He was a traditional, old-school GP and I feel really lucky to have worked with him.’
Pathway to home
After completing her primary and high school career in Devonport, Dr Cooper undertook her medical degree at the University of Tasmania in Hobart. Keen to roll up her sleeves and get started in some practical medicine, Dr Cooper soon decided on her career path.
‘I probably had interest at that stage around rural health, because I had grown up in the country, and moved back up to Burnie [approximately 45 km from Devonport] and did my internship resident year at the Northwest Regional Hospital,’ she said.
‘That was very hands-on and that’s why I chose to do it: to get in and start learning and doing things.’
Confident in the idea that she wanted to follow a rural healthcare route, Dr Cooper ultimately made the move to the mainland.
‘I thought that I wanted to take a rural pathway of some sort, but this was prior to the advanced skills and some of the rural training that the RACGP now has,’ she said. ‘So I chose pathways to rural centres like Tamworth [New South Wales] and Toowoomba [Queensland].’
Dr Cooper undertook training in some advanced skills before returning to rural medicine back in Tasmania.
‘I came home and did some general practice in Sheffield, Railton and Spreyton [all near Devonport],’ she said. ‘There was a clinic that had three components and you could work in those three practices. That was very rural and it was really good.’
While Dr Cooper also spent time in Katherine, in the Northern Territory, where she did a hospital term as a resident and undertook some fly-in fly-out services, she was soon back in her home state.
‘After these experiences I came back home and settled down and worked in most of the practices in the area,’ she said. ‘Right now I am here in Devonport.
‘I have been here for nearly 20 years and I have a very loyal patient base. They are just a lovely bunch of patients, and I am now looking after the children of the children who I have looked after.
‘That’s really exciting.’
Dr Cooper currently works at Don Medical Clinic, which she originally started by herself – ‘in a one-room practice with just me and a laptop’ – at Don College in 2013 after she spoke with two local social workers in Devonport and realised there was a need for a better level of services for the town’s young people.
‘They both impressed upon me the lack of youth-friendly practices and youth-friendly GPs, that it was hard to get young people in to see the doctor and sometimes the environments weren’t conducive to young people feeling comfortable,’ Dr Cooper said.
One of those social workers was a staff member of Don College, which is home to students in years 11 and 12, who suggested Dr Cooper set up a clinic in an available room on the campus. Seeing an opportunity to provide some much-needed healthcare services to young people, Dr Cooper’s well established local roots helped get the practice up and running.
‘When you’re in a small town you often know a lot of people, which really helps when you are going to do something a little bit different,’ she said. ‘The principal of Don College, John Thompson, and I went to school together.
‘He was really keen to have an on-campus health service that would complement what he had already established as a whole-school focus, which included a police officer, a social worker, a youth worker and a chaplain, along with all of the teaching staff.
‘Having a GP on campus would really support that. That’s how Don Medical Clinic started.’
While the youth-focused clinic was an immediate success, the financial realities of operating a single-doctor bulk-billing service for young people soon became apparent.
‘Here I was, doing this fairly special work and providing a need for the community, but I wasn’t getting access to practice incentive payments or any of those sorts of things,’ Dr Cooper said.
With those more ‘traditional’ avenues for funding largely inaccessible, Dr Cooper was forced to look outside the box for some additional support. A fund for social determinants projects established by the previous Labor Government provided an opportunity for Dr Cooper to work with others in her local community.
‘I met a lot of the same people I work with in the youth sector within Devonport and I thought, if we all got together and collaborated on a project we would be successful in getting this money – it was $300,000 for the Devonport community – and we were successful,’ she said.
‘From that, we were able to establish the Hub Program, which involved me as a GP, Don College had a representative, Wise Employment Agency had a person involved, Youth and Family Community Connections, an NGO [non-government organisation], had a person involved, and we had a person from the council.
‘This was one opportunity where I was able to experience collaborating within the community and set up a program where we were all very much linked and supporting each other. It’s been really exciting.
‘Once I set up the on-campus clinic, I got to liaise with the teachers to see what the issues [affecting young people] were. We have had people self-referring to the clinic, teachers referring, social workers referring, parents referring.
‘It’s been very much accepted as a place to go with hopefully not too much stigma.’
Dr Cooper’s work with young people in Devonport has extended outside of the walls of Don Medical Clinic – which has now expanded to include a mainstream three-doctor practice in the centre of town – and elsewhere through the local community.
‘The other thing I did after opening the clinic is work with the headspace team on ways to establish headspace in Devonport.
A satellite service has since been established, with the main practice based in Launceston,’ Dr Cooper said.
‘This community, which had very limited health services, currently has a very well-established network of people who are very passionate about young people’s health and wellbeing.’
While she has accomplished so much for the health of those in her hometown, especially its young people, Dr Cooper under-stands there is always more to be done. And being named the RACGP’s 2016 GP of the Year only strengthens that resolve.
‘It makes me really proud to be a GP and it really provides me with some very positive feedback that some of the work I do has been acknowledged,’ she said.
‘I have worked a little bit beyond what I needed to do, but I am extremely passionate about young people’s health and, for me, this is an opportunity to put young people’s health on that national radar and that’s really, really exciting.
‘When I was notified that I had won the award, that was my first thought: this is our next step to putting young people’s needs on the map.’
First published in Good Practice October 2016:10-11