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A tree change is in the wind

28 October 2020 - A/Prof Stephen Barnett

What a year it has been! And yet being located in a regional town during these crises has highlighted some of the benefits of rural life. At a time when rural and regional workforce is still struggling to attract and retain talent, I wanted to reflect on some of these benefits.

As health practitioners, whether city or country based, we see regular recognition that we have offered something special. At risk to ourselves but to the benefit our patients, we have worked through the ever-changing and challenging COVID-19 environment. However, as regional dwellers and practitioners, we have also had the benefit of the close ties and sense of connection that seem particular to smaller communities: phone calls at midnight to neighbours and friends to check their properties are safe, chats with members of the Rural Fire Service (who we know to be our friendly local postman, beautician or architect) and the gratitude of our patients as we check in on them during the pandemic. The daily displays of support have been re-energising and comforting.

In the picturesque towns and villages of the NSW Southern Highlands where I practice, there was initially the concern about a 'COVID apocalypse' in the local economy. And yet as the lockdowns and ‘work from home’ options progressed, we saw more change. Large numbers of regional commuters began working from home and liking it! Their families had more time with them as their commute was slashed to a thirty second dash down the hallway. Many don’t want to return to 'normal life' and city businesses are accommodating their 'new normal'.

Hot on the heels of these telecommuters have been the Sydney escapees who have realised they never want to go back. Lockdown in a Highlands weekender has evolved into a lifestyle change. Schools are suddenly flooded with extra enrolments and are hiring builders and demountable classrooms. The property and hospitality markets have boomed. Instead of flying off to holiday somewhere exotic, others still have discovered the Southern Highlands and are queuing 100 metres down the street for the famous Gumnut patisserie or visiting one of our ‘hatted’ restaurants or cellar doors.

And medical work? We have never been busier.

The story for general practice nationally seems to be a patchwork, but in our region, with a loyal community of patients who live and work in the area, the many retirees, and our influx of new locals, we have not stopped. This has been challenging at times as we sometimes struggle to keep up with demand, but on the other hand, we are constantly grateful to have reliable, satisfying work, as opposed to our many friends and colleagues in practices and industries that have been less fortunate.

So, what does this mean for regional life?

COVID-19 has been a global disaster, but here in the country, there have been some unexpected, but welcome, upsides. People are rediscovering the rewarding and healthy lifestyle in rural and regional areas, with bushwalks and fresh air right outside the door and a five-minute commute to school, work, shopping, ballet studios, golf courses and art classes.

Australians are finally embracing the possibilities of working to live rather than living to work. As the public discover the charms of small towns with big hearts, pristine environments, thriving schools, less expensive real estate and warm, supportive communities, we hope to see a similar refreshment of regional medical workforces with doctors who are ready for a tree-change and keen to embrace quality medicine, clinical variety and plenty of rewarding work.

I hope not to have ‘overdone’ this promo for life in rural practice, but if it has at least sparked some interest, go and have a look at a regional area near you. After all, sometimes a change can be the best medicine there is.

Dr Stephen Barnett is a GP, Clinical Associate Professor, medical educator and practice owner in the Southern Highlands of NSW.

Highlands General Practice, and any of the local practices, are always keen to welcome keen GPs into this beautiful region: Explore current opportunities with Highlands General Practice


A/Prof Stephen Barnett
A/Prof Stephen Barnett

Stephen is a GP Supervisor, Medical Educator, GP academic and Medical Director of Medcast. He has completed a PhD on Virtual Communities of Practice in GP Training.

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