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Sometimes in life, you have to go through Plan B and C before you finally hit Plan A. That’s certainly the case for Dr Sunny Patel, a current GPTQ registrar with a special interest in mental health. Here, Sunny explains her roundabout journey to General Practice, alongside providing registrars with some welcome consulting tips for their mental health patients.

 

Eleven years of university

Sunny has just finished her fellowship exams and while awaiting her results, she works a four-day week at Rochedale Family Practice. Getting to this point has taken eleven years of university, as well as a fair amount of interstate travel.

“I grew up in Queensland and did my undergraduate degrees here, but then I went down to Canberra for medical school and my intern and resident years. I came back up to Brisbane to do GP training as I missed my family,” she smiles.

When Sunny mentions ‘degrees’, she’s not kidding.

“I did psychology and then my honours in psychology. I did nursing as well, and a year of science. I always forget about that one!” she laughs.

She then went on to do her medical degree at ANU in Canberra.

“When I was 12, I remember telling my teachers I wanted to be a doctor. But as I went through high school, I thought about who I was as a person and what type of job I’d be really happy doing,” she explains.

“At that time, I didn’t realise psychology was an option, so I went into science. While I was studying, someone said ‘would you be interested in doing psychology?’ I looked into it and thought, ‘yes, that’s is me. That’s what I want to do.”

As she studied her psychology course, she came to a rather large realisation.

“While it’s definitely a busy field now, sadly at that time (2011), there weren’t a lot of job prospects. So I switched to nursing, knowing it was a pathway to medicine. I figured having some clinical experience might improve my chances of getting into medical school. But I knew that my psychology studies weren’t wasted, and would remain relevant in my career in some shape or form.”

And it certainly has been during her GP training.

“I have these moments when I’m at work where I think, ‘wow, I probably wouldn’t have been able to answer this question or been this comfortable with this particular patient, if it wasn’t for what I’ve been through’,” she says.

“Being unsure about my pathway, but still managing to get to Plan A helps me relate to my patients struggles too. Everyone has their own time frame and there’s never just one path on the road to where you want to be.”

 

General Practice in her blood

Picking her specialisation wasn’t too difficult for Sunny as she had two great mentors.

“My parents are both GPs, so that was a big driving force for my choice. I had a lot of exposure growing up and I got to see what the job entailed and how it fulfilled my parents. But I don’t think I appreciated the finesse and confidence they have in their work until I was challenged with it myself!” she laughs.

Now she’s in the field, she couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.

“I’m very proud of our ability as GPs to address just about any medical problem in a 15 minute period. We have a huge breadth of knowledge and can develop skills in so many areas of interest,” she says.

“I also love being able to follow people throughout their lives. I see them when they’re pregnant, and then I’ll look after their child. It’s amazing to get to deal with such a wide range of medical issues at different intervals in someone’s life.”

 

A penchant for mental health

Sunny’s love of mental health has led her to take up a variety of work opportunities in the area, including being a Registrar Medical Educator last year.

“I’d tour different hospitals and teach junior doctors and medical students a variety of GP topics. One of them was mental health, talking about anxiety and how to recognise and manage it in yourself,” she says.

“I’ve always been interested in the area, as I seem to be a person others come to for advice. I also enjoy reading and trying to predict people’s behaviour. In my head, I often play the devil’s advocate, trying to understand people’s motives and agendas. When I started medicine, I didn’t realise how important that was, but in my GP work, a third to fifty percent of my day is consulting with mental health patients.”

Some of this rise can be attributed to the pandemic, which has presented new challenges for registrars and GPs alike.

“Thanks to technology, managing patient expectations is always changing. Patients can have a doctor at their fingertips via their computer screens. As a GP, you need to think about what your boundaries are. But it’s also about being able to keep up with the current climate and constantly adjusting. It’s really about being resilient and flexible.”

Even though the space is challenging, Sunny says there is much reward.

“People feel comfortable coming to us in their dark moments and bearing all. We are very privileged to have this role. I love feeling as though I’ve offered good advice, and get a real kick out of hearing someone feels better.”

 

Sunny’s mental health consulting tips

 While Sunny says many of her registrar mental health tips are obvious, she feels it’s important to reinforce them.

  1. Really listen

“A big part of your job is to elicit information from your patient. To do that, you need to really listen to their concerns. If your patient feels listened to, they will trust the advice you give them. The other thing to understand is that 90% of your job is done by just supporting and being there for your patient.”

  1. Find common ground

“Try to put yourself in your patient’s shoes. Do you see parts of yourself in them? Have you been through similar experiences? Being able to empathise is a powerful consulting tool.”

  1. Understand you can’t ‘fix’ everything

“As a GP, you have this ‘fix it’ mentality and it can be confronting when you can’t resolve every single issue. You feel helpless.”

“The most difficult part of mental health is acknowledging patients have their own timeline and journey, and sometimes all you can do is be there for them.”

  1. Ensure you have your own GP

“Mental health is a very raw area of medicine so go easy on yourself if you make a mistake, or feel pushed out of your comfort zone. Seeking supervisor support and taking your allocated breaks are really important, but so is having your own GP.”

Learn more about how to become a GP here.

 

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