Douglas Brown is certainly adept at juggling shifting demands. As a first year GP registrar and newly-uniformed member of the Australian Defence Force (ADF), he splits his time between the RAAF base in Amberley, his Brisbane GP clinic, and an array of training locations across the nation.
Here, Doug gives us an interesting insight into his Royal Australian Air Force and GP training time, as well as some of the unique challenges he faces as he moves between civilian and military medicine.
Medicine and military in his blood
Doug developed a love of medicine at a young age. While his paternal grandfather was a doctor in the army, he was also greatly influenced by his childhood GP, and remembers thinking it was ‘a pretty cool job’.
When he started high school, he got the chance to indulge in his second love – the military.
“I did both army and air force cadets. I suppose I was following the family tradition, as both my grandfathers were in the military. Joining the air force was a natural choice as my dad and uncle were civil aviation pilots, and my mum was a flight attendant,” he explains.
Knowing he wanted to become a GP, Doug felt the ADF was a ‘perfect fit’.
“The ADF encourage their doctors to start with GP training, as a lot of military medicine is general practice work. I knew it was the right pathway for me,” he says.
The path to GP training and ADF
Doug undertook his medical degree at Bond University, with the ADF sponsoring his studies. He completed his two year residency at the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane, while continuing to train with the Royal Australian Air Force.
His hospital experience only served to further cement his decision to become a GP.
“I couldn’t settle on just one thing. General practice gives you that variety, plus you get to see your patients more than once. I also found I liked the tempo of the general practice setting,” he smiles.
His first year of GP and ADF training
Doug began his GP training earlier this year in conjunction with fulfilling his aviation commitments. It’s certainly been a jam-packed experience.
“From February till June, I was at officer training school at the air force base in Sale, Victoria, learning how to become an officer; how to shoot rifles, march and salute. You also learn how to lead because as a doctor, you’re meant to be a leader in your team,” he explains.
He then spent time working in primary health care at the base medical centre with his ADF patients. After this, he went back to Brisbane to his civilian GP clinic in Sherwood for a seven-week stint.
“It was a big change from military medicine. Most military patients are young, fit and healthy. But when you go into civilian land, you get to see patients over 65 and under 18. It’s been quite interesting, and I’ve really enjoyed the paediatric and geriatrics component,” he says.
To add a bit more to the mix, Doug has attended additional ADF training courses to further expand his knowledge. Thing such as aeromedical evacuation, where he learnt how to configure a range of military aircraft with stretchers for flying into disaster zones.
Some unique challenges combining military and civilian medicine
According to Doug, the most obvious challenge ADF GP registrars face is the constant change in location, often at short notice. This impacts the continuity of care he has with his civilian GP patients, as he’s not able to be there every day.
He says military medicine also has some obstacles.
“I don’t get exposure to a broad patient base. Military members are aged 18 to 65, with most on the younger side. Not seeing a paediatric patient population in military medicine is one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced,” he says.
“Apart from reading about cases online, the only way I can gain experience is being at the civilian practice. If I’m not there every day, it gets harder to brush up on those skills.”
Doug says there are also a number of differences between civilian and military medicine that he consciously has to adjust to.
“As an example, in aviation medicine, you have that additional layer to consider around whether someone’s fit to fly. It requires a different thought process, as medications you can have on the ground might not work when you’re flying in the air,” he says.
The perks of a dual GP life
Although there are challenges moving between the GP clinic and his ADF work, Doug says the rewards are also doubled.
“In the Air Force, I get to work in a health centre with other GP registrars, nurses, medics, paramedics and physiotherapists. Being in the military together creates a real community feeling. The camaraderie is definitely a highlight of being a GP registrar in the ADF,” he smiles.
But he’s also enjoyed his time in civilian GP medicine, developing relationships with his patients, as he watches them improve.
“It’s such a rewarding feeling to help a patient. You investigate and try to figure out what the cause might be, and then you start them on medications. You call them a week later and they’re feeling fine,” he says.
“That doesn’t happen in the hospital setting. You discharge the patient and you may never see them again. But at the GP clinic, you get that follow-up gratification. You’re actually making a difference. That’s why general practice is such a rewarding career.”
It’s the support that makes all the difference
Even though his ADF and GP training can be demanding at times, Doug feels it’s workable due to the extensive support systems in place.
“At the base, I have a military and a civilian GP supervisor. I’ve also got my usual civilian GP supervisor in Brisbane. If there’s any issues with clinical cases, they’re always there and willing to help,” he explains.
Doug says consideration has been given to his working hours, with in-built flexibility to allow for his varied training schedule.
“The hours are fantastic, as I usually only work 38 hours a week. It’s clearly divided into a stretch of either civilian or military work. So when I’m in civilian land, my focus is just on those patients, and the same for my military time,” he explains.
“It works because all my supervisors are so accommodating. My Brisbane GP supervisor is also a former Air Force member, so he’s very understanding when it comes to my training needs.”
Advice for those contemplating GP and ADF life
Doug sees his career as an ADF doctor as a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity.
“If you’re young and studying medicine, I highly recommend going into the military, especially the Air Force. It’s a fantastic experience not just for the challenges, but for the connections you make with patients,” he says.
“When I see a patient who is a veteran and they find out that I’m in the Air Force, there’s an instant bond. It’s a really nice and unique feeling.”
For those considering becoming an ADF doctor, Doug’s advice is based on your stage of life. Early teens should consider cadets, while those studying medicine can talk to defence recruiting. They can directly connect you with doctors in the field.
“There’s not that much information online about what life is like as a military doctor in Australia. That’s why getting firsthand experience by talking to a military doctor and touring the base is so helpful.”
For GP registrars, Doug’s best tip is to align yourself with a GP supervisor who is a current or former ADF member.