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Meet ADF medical educator, Dr Steve Lawson

Dr Kate Wallis (featured image)

Dr Steve Lawson understands the demands of being a GP in the Australian Defence Force. Over the past 20 years, he’s walked that path from his early medical training days to his current active duties as a reservist.

“I’ve been through the system and have an appreciation of what the requirements are from both the GP training college and from defence. I can see where the brick walls are and what you can potentially do.”​

ADF medical educator role

Steve resumed his role as GPTQ’s medical educator for ADF Registrars early this year and is excited to share his breath of experience with aspiring defence doctors.

“There’s a large cohort of ADF Registrars that come through GPTQ. We’ve got a RAAF base out at Amberley and barracks at Enoggerra plus there’s navy at HMAS MORETON,” he says. “There’s a real need to keep an eye on these guys as they don’t have a steady, normal training route through general practice due to defence force demands.”

A roundabout path to medicine

Steve was born in Papua New Guinea but his family moved back to Australia when he was six. He spent his primary school years in rural Queensland at Blackall and Emerald, and then moved to Brisbane.

His first job out of high school was as a maths and science teacher, but he then joined the military and saw an opportunity to enrol in medicine at The University of Queensland. Steve jumped at the chance.

“I’ve always had a medical interest as my mum’s a nurse. After medical school, I did my intern years at the Royal Brisbane and Hervey Bay hospitals, and then spent a number of years working for defence,” he says. “My association with GPTQ began early as I went through myself as a Registrar.”

Time as a Registrar

Having grown up in the country, Steve chose to do some training in rural areas helping Aboriginal communities.

“I worked in a general practice in Rockhampton but also at a remote Aboriginal Medical Service in Woorabinda for three months,” he says. “It was great because it was completely different from a standard general practice. You had more independence early on because you didn’t have the same back up as you did in a larger set up.”

His experiences there both inspired and moved him.

“You feel for the community because you realise how much disadvantage there is. Everyone was extremely welcoming and I didn’t feel like an outsider at all. Part of it was me accepting them as they were and not trying to impose what you would expect in a normal general practice situation.”

Work and home life

Steve currently lives in Wilston and works at Milton Village Medical in Milton. He works a four-day week, enabling him to spend more time with his young family.

“I have two primary school aged kids and one just started high school, so I have a day off a week to do school drop off and pickup. I try to fit in a kindy or tuckshop roster too.”

Along with his home life and GP duties, Steve also manages to fit in a six to eight week defence deployment each year.

“Early on in 2004/5, I did a trip to the Middle East and then Timor. I did Ashmore and Christmas Island refugee border protection in 2009 when it was very active. I’ve also done multiple navy deployments in Southeast Asia, Hawaii and the States.”

Unique challenges for ADF Registrars

Steve says there’s a common misconception that military medicine focuses on what happens during conflict. In reality, the most need is at the bases so ‘it’s routine general practice’. But it can be really hard for ADF Registrars to get this GP experience during their training time.

“Getting exposure to a wide variety of patients is really difficult with the demands of defence. Registrars might be given three months to work in a practice but then suddenly get taken out for a week at short notice because defence needs them,” he says.

“There’s not much continuity as some patients say ‘I don’t know if they’re going to be here so I’ll see someone else’. As a result, some Registrars spend all their time just seeing kids or new patients, or a fairly narrow spectrum of medicine.”

Another challenge ADF Registrars face is they are expected to practice like a senior doctor at a very early stage in their career, when they haven’t had much clinical medical experience.

“When I was in my third year out of medicine, I was the only doctor on a ship with 200 sailors. I wasn’t a qualified GP and still in training but defence sees you as a doctor and expects all doctors to be the same.”

Steve’s experiences have made him aware of these unique difficulties and he does all he can to help ADF Registrars navigate the obstacles they face in their training.

Offering support for Registrars

Taking on a medical educator role gives Steve a chance to not only teach but also give back what he learnt from his own mentors.

“I think back to when I was the student and I really appreciated those clinicians who gave me their time. They made you feel part of the profession and gave you skills you could use for the rest of your life,” he says.

Steve believes Registrars need to take care of their mental health, and also likes to encourage them to try and find a good work-life balance.

“Registrars should spend a day or an afternoon every week doing something else, whether it’s with family or pursuing a special interest,” he says. “I also tell them to make sure they sit down and have lunch with other people so they don’t become too isolated.”