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Meet Brisbane based GP, Dr Cathy Lee

Dr John Buckley (featured image)

Brisbane based GP and medical educator, Dr Cathy Lee works part-time at a medical practice in Camp Hill and says balance is the key.

A career in general practice provides many different opportunities and experiences. There is always more to learn and new skills to be gained.

Brisbane based GP and medical educator

“I was undecided about what I was going to study at university,” says Dr Cathy Lee, GP and medical educator. “I took a year off after school, worked in a pharmacy for six months and travelled around Europe. I didn’t know whether to do engineering or medicine, but this gap year taught me that I needed to get a degree in something.”

Cathy decided on medicine at The University of Queensland. “I liked science and knew that I wanted to work with people, so medicine seemed like a good idea. “To be honest, I wasn’t truly fulfilled in medicine until I had been a GP for about five years, and was working in both a clinical and an educational setting.”

Born in England, Cathy emigrated with her family when she was five and has spent most of her life in Brisbane. She currently works part time at a medical practice in Camp Hill, where she has been located for the past seven years.

“It’s a lovely, well-run practice with fabulous community and practice nurses, allied health, a couple of visiting specialists and GPs of all ages and interests. It’s a really good team,” she says.

Becoming a GP

When Cathy was an undergraduate, general practice wasn’t encouraged at medical school, she says. “Nearly all of your training, was done by hospital specialists and the focus was on disease processes and treatment.”

I spent five years doing hospital rotations, here and in the United Kingdom. “I did kind of fall into general practice,” says Cathy. “While I enjoyed all of the various specialty terms, I wasn’t committed enough to one particular area to the exclusion of all others. I wanted to use all the knowledge and skills that I had gained during my training. I also looked at the registrars and consultants in the hospitals and saw that they were often not happy in their chosen career. They didn’t seem to have any energy or time left for interests outside of medicine,” she adds.

“General practice seemed to be the only specialty that would allow me a good work-life balance. Once I settled into general practice, I found that there was much satisfaction in getting to know my patients and looking after them long term. “It’s about whole patient care. You are not just focusing on one body organ, you’re trying to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together,” she says. “Patients are all individuals with different life experiences and personalities. This is what keeps general practice interesting for me.”

“One of the biggest challenges that I remember as a GP registrar was dealing with diagnostic dilemmas and uncertainty. In the hospital setting, patients are not usually discharged until all the tests have been done, a diagnosis reached and a treatment plan set. Over time in general practice, I’ve learned to order fewer tests and have become more comfortable with uncertainty. This is a skill that can take a few years to develop, but I like to start the process with registrars.”

Becoming a medical educator

“My dad was an academic and my mum was a teacher,” says Cathy. Involved in teaching medical students and GP registrars for 16 years, she started out as a UQ PBL tutor. “For five years, I was a medical educator with the RACGP, teaching on the AMC (Australian Medical Council) exam preparation course for overseas trained doctors. I’ve also been a college examiner since 2003.” Cathy started with GPTQ by doing ECT visits and has enjoyed the training provided by Dr John Buckley and Dr Graham Emblen. “They really inspire the whole group of educators,” she says. “They have such a passion for general practice and for teaching. Being involved with medical education has improved my own practice,” she adds. “Once you start teaching, you gain a deeper understanding of what it is we do in general practice. They are both mutually beneficial. I use a lot of patient stories and am not afraid to disclose some of my own mistakes when I’m teaching.”

Cathy enjoys teaching skills such as communication, managing uncertainty and doctor self-care. “These important learning areas are not catered for in post fellowship GP education, so it’s a golden opportunity to train our registrars with these skills.”

She is also passionate about doctor self-care and mental health issues. “There is a need for open discussion around the higher rates career dissatisfaction, depression and suicide in doctors and other health care workers,” she says. “Our registrars are sometimes doing it tough, trying to balance family life, work and study commitments. I aim to create a culture of acceptance and support between doctors.”

“I love working with GPTQ registrars, supervisors and the other medical educators. On the whole, we are a happy, healthy, well balanced group! A career in general practice provides many different opportunities and experiences. There is always more to learn and new skills to be gained. My advice to registrars is to try and see this as a positive and not be overwhelmed by a career that involves lifelong learning. Continue to learn and to seek new experiences beyond just your training years.”

Rural adventures

Cathy initially decided on rural general practice as she liked ‘doing a bit of everything’ and wanted to gain a special skill in anaesthetics. “I did my second year of GP training in Murwillumbah in northern NSW,” she says. Working in the practice, emergency, surgical assisting and having inpatients, Cathy says it was a ‘great job, but hard going’. “I have a lot of admiration for the rural doctors who can turn themselves to anything.”

Cathy spent two years of hospital training in Gosford, north of Sydney. “Training in a regional hospital definitely had advantages for a career in general practice. I was able to do fantastic terms like sexual health, drug and alcohol medicine and held junior registrar positions in medicine, psychiatry and emergency,” she says. “This often involved working independently and taking on extra responsibilities, while still having supervision available.” Cathy encourages young doctors to do some training in the country, or in regional hospitals, to gain a broader experience. After four years working rurally and in the UK, Cathy returned to the city with her partner, Michael, a veterinarian and academic at the University of Queensland. “He lectures at UQ and has a PhD in humpback whales. We have a shared interest in teaching and training and there are many similarities between vet practice and medical practice,” says Cathy. “The whale work however, takes us to interesting places! When Michael was on sabbatical in Scotland, I was able to sit at my computer and write learning modules for GPTQ to allow a ‘flipped classroom’ approach to medical education sessions.

Work-life balance

Playing both the flute and piccolo, Cathy has been a musician with the Brisbane Concert Orchestra, various musical theatre pit orchestras, wedding occasions and the Queensland Medical Orchestra. “The QMO is a wonderful group of health professionals and we do three concerts a year to raise money for various charities,” she says. “For me, music is my escape from medicine and it helps keep me sane.”

Cathy and Michael have two sons, whose birthdays, coincidentally, are on the same day. “They were born three years apart. I went into labour as I was making a birthday cake for the three year old! That was 10 and 13 years ago today,” she says, adding that her family enjoy outdoor activities. “We spend weekends and holidays sailing our catamaran, going camping, hiking, surfing, bike riding, occasionally skiing and often staying at home relaxing and maintaining our 90-year-old Queenslander,” she says. “We also have 10 pets, including a native turtle and three chickens. My younger son is their carer; I think he might be the next Gerald Durrell or David Attenborough! We have all four grandparents on the Sunshine coast, so we go to the beach a lot. A rewarding career, time for family, hobbies and exercise, that’s general practice.”
“Watching people come into training and leave, and listening to the already amazing, caring doctors they’ve become is the most amazing thing,” he says.