According to Dr Steve Kearney, the skills he learned as a doctor in the Army (including the Special Forces) have served him well for his role as a GP supervisor.
“I say to my registrars: I am not here to teach you medicine, I am here to teach you how to be a great GP.”
An Army pharmacist
“I grew up in central Queensland on a dairy farm. I didn’t really have high expectations of my future as a young child. Most people didn’t go to university around where I lived,” says Dr Steve Kearney, GP at Ningi Doctors.
Eschewing the life of a farmer due to its hardship and unpredictability, Steve undertook pharmacy at The University of Queensland. “I wanted to get into medicine, but I didn’t get the score,” says Steve. A competitive rower making the Australian under 23 team, Steve combined his passion for rowing with his studies. He joined the Army as a pharmacist for six years before sitting the aptitude test for medicine and commencing a medical degree in 1998, going back to the Army upon qualifying.
Working with the SAS and training military medics
“I had a pretty amazing time,” he says. “As a pharmacist, I had a few postings, including to Rwanda in the mid-1990s. As a doctor, I did a year in a support unit, then worked for a Light Infantry Battalion before working with the Special Forces. I worked with Commandos and the SAS in Afghanistan in 2006, working closely with an American surgical team.”
Steve also trained Army medics, including the intensive six-week Patrol Advanced First Aid Course, before going back to Afghanistan in 2007 and being the lead author for their training manual. “It was a bit crazy,” he says.
From Scotland to Morayfield as a GP
Steve left the Army in 2009, travelling to Scotland with his wife to take up work as a GP. For 18 months he gained general practice experience in after-hours centres, doing home visits and Army medicals. He also worked as a GP in emergency departments and even prisons, to better understand “manipulative patients and the use of opioids”.
On his return to Australia, Steve took up a GP role in “a very organised practice” run by ex-military personnel in Morayfield. “I hadn’t done care plans or civilian medical administration for a long time,” he says. “I wanted to be in a well-run practice.” Steve worked in Morayfield for five years before moving to Ningi Doctors. “It was a small practice in a new building. We’ve built that up to nine doctors, which is phenomenal.”
A keen interest in skin cancer medicine
With a passion for skin cancer medicine, Steve spends two to four hours per day on skin surgery. “I do a lot of interesting surgery, but it still gives me time for general practice.” Having a son with Asperger’s, Steve says he is also a magnet for kids with the condition and their families. “People talk, and internet chat groups will refer to certain GPs. I still get veterans coming to me as well.”
Steve enjoys the variety of medicine in a semi-rural practice. “You just don’t see the conditions in the city that you do in rural areas,” he says. “Lower socioeconomic areas have a higher burden of disease, with many suffering from chronic illness. You get a lot of pathology walking through the door every day, and it’s very interesting. Patients are often keen to be treated locally and not travel to specialist appointments unless absolutely necessary.
“I enjoy my job more than anyone else I know.”
Steve’s love of rural practice is evident – and returned by the community. “I am lucky. I’ve got a great following. I was voted Moreton Bay’s most loved doctor last year.” He is quick to point out that voting was unbeknownst to him, however. “I didn’t know about it until after it was done. Someone rang up and told me.” But being a GP, he says, is a rewarding career. “To be honest, I didn’t want to do anything else. I enjoy my job more than anyone else I know.”
Steve passes on that enthusiasm for general practice as a GP supervisor, GP liaison officer for the Primary Health Network at Caboolture Hospital, and GP liaison officer for GPTQ.
Relishing the role of GP supervisor
“When I went to Ningi, the obvious next stage was to become a supervisor. I am really enjoying it,” says Steve, having gained extensive teaching experience in the Army, both as a pharmacist and doctor looking after several medics in each military unit, as well as being one of the go-to practitioners for skin cancer management in Morayfield.
“It’s like an apprenticeship,” says Steve. “I say to my registrars: I am not here to teach you medicine, I am here to teach you how to be a great GP. I don’t pretend to know everything,” he adds. “Being open and accepting of my registrars’ views and opinions and their clinical acumen is important and educational for me.”
Vital skills for modern GPs
Compassion and communication, says Steve, are critical skills for a GP. “A lot of people’s situations are quite unfortunate and we need to be understanding,” he says. “People can have some serious problems and be on a path for so long that they can’t really change, even if they want to. I grew up in an environment where people had not a lot, and I can understand those who have different lives to me. I could have easily chosen a different path.”
“I think medicine is a wonderful vocation. You can do so many different things once you finish, and you are in the most amazing privileged situation,” he says. “While some doctors undervalue general practice, if you do it well, you will have people come to you who value you, and you will find it a very rewarding career.”
Steve is grateful for the opportunities he has had and the support he enjoys, especially from his wife, who he says is an inspiration. “I am very lucky. My wife is a palliative care physician at the Royal Brisbane and she does the lion’s share of looking after the house and kids. She is an inspiration to me, as are all mums who can do that. They are amazing.”