From undergraduate to general practice

  • Man and his dog in front of Weipa Health Services sign
James Cook University
Eleanor Gregory, Communications and Engagement Co-ordinator,
JCU College of Medicine and Dentistry

GP registrar and rural generalist, Dr Steve Johnston has come through James Cook University medical training from undergraduate to postgraduate and is a strong advocate for rural and remote medicine. Now based in Weipa in Cape York, with skills in anaesthetics and ear nose and throat medicine, he is passionate about the training program and providing medical services to those most in need. He is also dedicated to supporting others through the program as a Registrar Liaison Officer.

JCU medicine – the perfect fit

 A trip to the sunny north for a medical school interview was all it took for Dr Steve Johnston to fall in love with the region, farewell Victoria, and set his heart on a future in medicine in Queensland.

“When I was doing my interviews in Melbourne it was the middle of spring yet still cold and miserable and everyone was wandering around in suits. Then I came up north and people were in shorts and thongs.

“After my interview, I went across to Maggie Island and had an absolute ball of a time. It was my first real experience with living around islands and beaches and things like that. I just fell in love with the place. When I found out I got into JCU I was over the moon,” Dr Johnston said.

But while he was prepared to farewell Victoria, the one thing he wasn’t prepared to give up was his focus on rural medicine. Coming from Bairnsdale, three hours east of Melbourne, he’d grown up with a love of rural life and knew the value of great general practitioners in regional and rural communities.

“There were some really great docs in the community, they were always involved in the local events and sports teams. You went to school with their kids, they were people you really looked up to and respected.  Everyone in the community did, and they did so much for all of us.

“I was always interested in health, and always wanted to do something that would bring me back to a rural area. I just didn’t expect that would be in Queensland,” Dr Johnston said.

Rural generalist pathway

With a passion for the country, JCU’s medical program, with its heavy focus on rural placements and experiences, was the perfect fit.

Dr Johnson’s first five years of medical school confirmed his passion for rural medicine, but it was his sixth year in the remote western Cape York town of Weipa that opened his eyes to where he wanted to live and practice.

“I absolutely loved the hospital up there. The range of medicine you get is just unreal. You go from anaesthetics to emergency, and then to a lot of outpatient stuff. You go up to Napranum and Mapoon, which are some of the outreach clinics in the communities,” Dr Johnston said.

It wasn’t just the location that made a lasting impact. The scope of work available for rural generalists in the remote region also hit home.

“The whole generalist thing just appealed to me from the get-go. When I came up to Weipa and met the team it was awesome,” Dr Johnston said.

It was there he became acutely aware of the impact ear disease was having on communities across the Cape.

“Ear disease had already been identified as an issue through the Cape but there was no continuity of ENT services in the region. A couple of my supervisors and close mentors mentioned the ear, nose and throat (ENT) Special Interest training post in Logan under Associate Professor Bernard Whitfield and from there it really just grew.”

“We needed sustainable, and community-led care with a consistent ENT presence. So much of ENT medicine is about preventative care, but that needs relationships and trust between yourself and the communities. To build that you need people on the ground, and a consistent service in the community.

“It also needs educating and upskilling, which is easily said, but hard to do when you have to cover such a broad area. We felt a generalist focus would be the best way to try and cover this, so I went south to Bernie, who turned out to be hands down one of the greatest people you will ever meet.”

While building his skills, Dr Johnston and Associate Prof Whitfield also hatched a plan to bring desperately needed ENT skills to Weipa’s surgical lists and conduct outreach clinics across Cape York.

“It was crazy. About 60 percent of the kids we saw around the Cape had functional hearing loss. With Professor Whitfield’s support and the backing of the doctors of the Cairns and the Weipa Integrated health service we were able to develop and put forward a functional and sustainable ENT service for the Cape region,” Dr Johnston said.

Eighteen months on and having completed his anaesthetics training and managing around COVID-19 restrictions, Dr Johnston is back in his beloved Weipa, getting clinics up and running again, with hundreds already waiting to be seen.

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