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Meet GPTQ medical educator, Dr Kathy Kirkpatrick

Dr Brendan Triggs (featured image)

With over 25 years of rural general practice experience, Dr Kathy Kirkpatrick is well placed to support registrars training for their Fellowship in Advanced Rural General Practice (FARGP).

“One of the best things about working rurally is you can get a fuller picture of the patient. You don’t just see someone for 10 or 15 minutes, and then never see them again. You know who is related to whom and how they fit in the community. It really helps knowing all the influences that may be contributing to their state of health.”

On one track to medicine

Dr Kathy Kirkpatrick can thank the American reading program, SRA, for sparking an early interest in medicine.

“When I was about eleven years old, I read a book about the use of blood transfusions on the battlefields in Europe, and how that changed the management of injuries. That caught my attention and it just went from there,” she says.

“In later years, I had both a teacher and a career counsellor tell me I wouldn’t get into medicine, and that I’d better find something different. It was a real driver to prove them wrong!”

And this she did, securing a spot in medicine at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, where she was proudly part of the first cohort to have 50% women in first year.

Having grown up in Toowoomba with rural family connections, moving to Brisbane was difficult for Kathy, and she says she felt ‘terribly homesick’ for the initial year. But she pushed through and graduated, taking six months of maternity leave before doing her internship.


Always a rural focus

Kathy describes her pathway to general practice as ‘very circuitous’.

“After my internship, I worked as a Rehabilitation Registrar at the Repatriation General Hospital Greenslopes for five years. I then moved into aged care and worked in that field for the same length of time, leading the first aged care assessment team for Queensland,” she explains.

“We were based in Toowoomba but covered south west Queensland, which was around 40,000 square kilometres. We travelled out to support GPs in providing aged care, as well as assessing patients for residential care. Along the way, I met lots of rural GPs and that got me thinking about rural general practice.”

At that stage, Kathy decided to go back to Toowoomba Hospital and spend a year upskilling before beginning her GP training. Having always loved the rural life, she chose to complete her training in Miles and Taroom in the Western Downs region, and achieved her fellowship in 1995.

“I worked at a two-doctor procedural practice. My colleague was a GP surgeon and I did the anaesthetics. I loved being able to use the full scope of practice, with inpatients at the small rural hospital, and adding the extra layer of looking after my patients locally,” she says.

In the next phase of her career, Kathy enjoyed being a rural locum – alongside working as a medical educator with the RACGP training program – taking up a relieving position in Dalby for a solo female practitioner during the school holidays. She enjoyed it so much she moved there full time and stayed for just over 15 years, also making a connection with GPTQ during this period.

In 2015, after much encouragement from her daughter and son-in-law, she went to live with them and her young grandson in the picturesque country town of Kinglake, Victoria. She currently resides there and splits her days between spending time with her family, her medical education duties with GPTQ, and working with the Rural Workforce Agency Victoria.

“Part of my work with them is with the More Doctors for Rural Australia program, helping international medical graduates who are preparing for the ACRRM Independent Pathway or the RACGP PEP,” she says.

Supporting rural Registrars

Kathy has a long medical education history, beginning in the late eighties in a role coordinating UQ’s medical students undertaking their GP terms.

“I also had medical students and Registrars in the practice at Miles, then started as a medical educator with the RACGP training program in 1999. In 2002, when general practice training moved from the college to the regional training organisations, I joined GPTQ which was CSQTC back then,” she explains.

For her entire time with GPTQ, Kathy has supported Registrars training towards their Fellowship in Advanced Rural General Practice (FARGP).

“I don’t remember a time when I didn’t look after them. Isn’t that interesting?” she laughs.

As most of the work with Registrars is done online or via telephone, Kathy does it from her home base in Victoria, and travels up to Queensland for major workshops and meetings as needed.

“I really enjoy the one-on-one interaction I have with Registrars. They keep me on my toes and challenge me. I love hearing the enthusiasm in their voices and their engagement with rural general practice,” she says.

Learning your limitations

Kathy finds one of the most challenging aspects for rural Registrars is learning how ‘far to manage a patient’.

“In a rural context, there aren’t an easily accessible array of non-GP specialists, so you need to draw on a broader knowledge base. But you also need to know your limitations and when it’s time to hand the patient on. It’s okay to say ‘I need help’, as it can be scary to be on call on your own. It comes down to knowing who to call, and when to make it,” she says.

“It’s also important to talk to your supervisor about how to manage critical incidents, and to debrief afterwards. In addition, I would recommend you find a trusted colleague you can talk to about what’s happened. Without that, you can quickly burnout.”

For Registrars who might be on the fence about taking up a rural term, or living and working rurally, Kathy has this to offer.

“There are so many opportunities today to ‘try before you buy’ with rural practice, and I encourage you to take one or more of these. Nobody will think less of you if you decide it’s not for you,” she says.

“Nothing you experience at this stage in your career is a waste of time. Find a location where you’ll feel comfortable, and talk to somebody who’s been there before. Then perhaps start to push the boundary with a second experience down the track.”