For sixth-year medicine student Georgina Price, the opportunity to work in the Public Health Unit at the Townsville University Hospital was the chance to test her passion for the field.
But with the COVID-19 pandemic on the rise, she had no idea just how important her role would become.
Hailing from the Central Queensland town of Emerald, Georgina’s love of public health stems back to her boarding school days. The self-proclaimed ‘public health nerd’ gained an understanding of how different her experience was in accessing healthcare.
“I was boarding with girls from towns and from properties, and it really made me think about how different the access to healthcare is in a small town vs a city,” she said.
“Instead of doing a six hour round trip to go to Rocky, people in the city could access specialists just up the road. I chose to study at James Cook University because I knew they shared my passion and would foster it.
“I stayed interested in public health because I like the big picture. Disease has a big impact on individuals and being able to make a difference for people one-on-one is a real privilege. But, through public health you can make a positive contribution that affects a big chunk of the population, and helps a lot of people.”
During her recent six-week placement in the Townsville Hospital and Health Service Public Health Unit, Georgina quickly found her feet amongst staff dealing with an unfolding pandemic.
Working under the guidance of Dr Steven Donohue, Dr Julie Mudd and the Communicable Disease (CDC) Nurses, she was able to relieve some of the pressure on the team.
“Every day I would sit in with teleconference meetings and learn about the planning process. I was putting together findings from the literature being published (on COVID-19). I put together a list of local GP practices and began calling them to see how they were going – if they were actually able to see people and if they needed support from us,” she said.
“Each day, a new issue would come up that the doctors wanted to deal with, but were too busy. They just needed someone, not already overloaded with work, to sit and think about it for a while – so that’s what I would do.”
Georgina found herself right in the middle of a health communication storm, where GPs and hospital staff were combating ever-changing messaging on what they could and couldn’t do during the pandemic.
“If GPs aren’t seeing people then everybody has to go to the hospital. Then we can’t have a functioning health system. But the messaging was so confusing and it was changing all the time. I think at some point the GPs were told if you don’t want to test anyone, you don’t have to. But that could be taken as – maybe we shouldn’t be testing everyone because we are taking on risk. It was tricky. I conducted a survey just so we could gage where everyone was at.”
She was instrumental in helping set up and staff a Clinician Hotline. The number was established for GPs, clinical nurses and their practices to call through with any queries around COVID-19.
“The Hotline took some of the workload off the four CDC nurses in the unit. They needed someone who could filter some of the calls.
“Fifth-year students on their GP rotation and a sixth-year student on his clinical elective were bought in to help. My role was to orientate the students in what information they needed to know and where they could direct enquiries if a question had to go to a doctor.”
Georgina relished the task of health communication during her time with the unit. She said one of her proudest projects was distilling government information to create factsheets for clinicians and patients.
“One thing that was really stressed by Dr Donohue was the difference between quarantine and isolation. One of my earliest jobs was to put together a fact sheet that you could give to a person so they would know what they needed to do if they were in quarantine and what to do if they were in isolation.
“It actually got published on the health service website and also got handed out to a lot of people. So that was pretty cool.”
This was just one of a number of factsheets Georgina would go on to create.
“It’s the sort of thing Dr Donohue and Dr Mudd could easily generate from their knowledge and their background in health communication. But it was one less thing for them to do and clinically I could do it. So it was nice to find my spot.
“It was really good health communication experience. It was something that I had never thought that I would be interested in but I became really passionate about it.”
On finishing her public health placement, Georgina travelled back to her hometown of Emerald to begin her rural term at the local hospital.
It was here she had to put her COVID-19 knowledge into practice, when ironically, the budding doctor became the patient.
“On my second day I woke up with a sore throat. I had to isolate in my home and I got tested. I think it was probably a bit of fatigue or hay fever – but I couldn’t go in if I had a sore throat,” she said.
“I knew that I hadn’t come into contact with any respiratory cases, I knew that I hadn’t been seeing patients in Townsville. The only thing I was concerned about, which the Public Health Unit was starting to worry about, was community transmission in Townsville. You don’t really know when community transmission is happening - you know when it reveals itself.”
“It was hard being isolated, being stuck in one room, especially when you don’t feel sick. I mean, I wrote the fact sheet on what it means to be in isolation and all the things that you can’t do. You can’t have people in your room, you can’t leave your room and you need to try and use a different bathroom if you can.”
Luckily for Georgina, her test came back negative and she had been feeling well for a number of days, so she was able to return to the hospital.
Looking to the future Georgina said she will follow her passion into public health, but wants to work in the community with patients in her early career.
“Dr Julie Mudd gave me some great advice during my placement. She said wherever I go, I can be a help to people and it should not be about career. You can be a good clinician for someone, a good GP for someone, be a good junior doctor for someone. The ability to be of help to people is where the value is. That really struck me. I think that’s important in my early years as a doctor, to focus on being of help to people on an individual basis.”
“I want to do hands on things and see patients, gather experience and then later on be able to contribute to policy that lifts up the health of disadvantaged communities.”