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Dr Carolyn Russell


Meet GPTQ medical educator, Dr Carolyn Russell

Dr Carolyn Russell (featured image)

“I grew up in a small country town, three hours from Brisbane, with about 2,000 people,” says Dr Carolyn Russell, GP counsellor and medical educator in Brisbane.

“I like teaching anything that’s a psychological medicine combination, like chronic pain, managing clinical dilemmas or helping people think creatively about how they might respond to a dilemma and not close down.”

Divine intervention

Carolyn says she was always interested in both science and the humanities. “My mum was a teacher, and I loved languages, but I was really drawn to the curiosity of science,” she says. “A missionary doctor from Africa came to stay with my parents when I was a kid. She inspired me with her willingness to try anything and do with very little but still get good outcomes. I really admired that.”

When she left school, Carolyn decided that she would study medicine. “After a couple of years of trying various disciplines, I realised that I was a generalist at heart,” she says. “It was the generalist approach of being a GP and the relational element of caring for patients long-term that really appealed to me.”

Becoming a medical educator

As a registrar in psychiatry, Carolyn was exposed to teaching other registrars and students on the wards. “First year registrars in both of those disciplines used to take new students under their wing. I loved that.”

This was Carolyn’s first introduction to medical education. “I used to encourage the students to be the best they could be, even if they felt a little silly asking questions,” she says.

Following locum work, family medicine training and having three children, Carolyn started a practice with a friend. “We set up two rooms in a local shopping centre. It grew until we were a group of seven women in a practice. From the beginning we were encouraged by our local family medicine program to take students. We took them for their rotations and grew into being educators,” she says.

That experience helped Carolyn develop into her role with The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP), where she was a supervisor. “I took young GPs into the practice from 1989 through to 2003,” she says. During that time she became Chair of the Supervisors Association of Australia, looking at how doctors could become better GP supervisors in their practice. “I went to a few medical education meetings for the RACGP and decided that I would like to do more of it.”

It was while Carolyn was transitioning her practice to a mental health focus that she was requested to work for a private medical education company. “It was called the Cognitive Institute. I started one day a week as a medical educator.” Carolyn now supervises young GPs and mentors those who are interested in mental health. “I supervise a couple of young counsellors in my locale,” she says. “Modelling and mentoring is really important to me.”

Carolyn says she also enjoys the ‘formation process’ in her current medical educator role. “Being with a group for the whole year and watching them go from their first few weeks in general practice to becoming a confident general practitioner a year later is what I like most.”

The therapeutic relationship

“I’ve always enjoyed the relational element of practice and how interactions can either be therapeutic or destructive. Relationships can be so enriching and so rewarding if both people are giving to it,” says Carolyn. “I realised that the families in my practice who needed more care were the ones I really enjoyed spending time with. You saw changes that were more significant for them when they had a ‘trusted other’ in their circle of care.

“I love the generational part of general practice. In my practice we had four generations of a couple of families. It was highly satisfying to see the dynamics of a family move and shift and be able to support them just by being aware. I really value the inter-generational, cross-generational culture that develops in general practice,” says Carolyn.

“I also love the spectrum of presentations. It’s never boring. There’s always something that surprises you or challenges you in general practice if you put your heart into it,” she says. “If you do your own suturing, if you do your own emergency care, there’s such a surprising array of medicine to see and to learn. It’s a brilliant discipline.”

Paradoxically, it is death and palliative care, says Carolyn, that has been the most moving experience and which has taught her the most. “Making the decision to be in a person’s home, when their beloved husband or wife is dying and the family is gathered – those journeys with patients who are dying, and being part of that extended community, would have to be some of the richest experiences of my life,” she says.

Carolyn also likes teaching mental health and crisis care. “I like teaching anything that’s a psychological medicine combination, like chronic pain, managing clinical dilemmas or helping people think creatively about how they might respond to a dilemma and not close down,” she says.

The journey of general practice can be an inspiring one, says Carolyn. “It’s a place where you can create a space which is incredibly wonderful for your community. You can serve your community, and you don’t have to do it in any one particular way. Relax and enjoy the journey. And don’t take yourself so seriously.”

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