IWD: Dr Nicole Higgins on the power of mentorship

Jolyon Attwooll

7/03/2023 5:02:37 PM

To mark International Women’s Day, the RACGP President reflects on general practice as a career and how to level the playing field.

RACGP President Dr Nicole Higgins.
RACGP President Dr Nicole Higgins says GP male colleagues are women’s ‘allies in leadership’.

Dr Nicole Higgins discovered the power of a good mentor at a young age.
Growing up with a sister and brother with a disability, she spent an unusual amount of time in Maryborough general practice in country Victoria.
There was, however, an element of serendipity to those circumstances.
The Higgins were not a medical family, but the future RACGP President found herself fascinated by general practice, drawn to the bustle of clinical life, and struck by the positive impact GPs could have on their patients.
By the age of 11, she knew a career in general practice was the life for her. 
Under the watchful auspices of two local GPs, Dr Higgins used to visit the clinic after the bell rang at Maryborough Secondary School and would later sit in on the operating theatre as well as consultations.
It was a time when a patrician streak lingered at the RACGP, when the college was yet to have its first female president (Dr Margaret Kilmartin was the first, from 1998–2000).
The change since then, during which time Dr Higgins moved on from Maryborough to Monash University and realised her childhood general practice dream, has been profound.
On the way, Dr Higgins recalls encountering structures she describes as hierarchical, and even at times misogynistic – a problem she believes has historically been an acute one in medicine – but she told newsGP that the current makeup of the college reflects the changing times.
She points to the number of state faculties now chaired by women, while the RACGP Board has Dr Lara Roeske as Chair, as well as a female president and a high proportion of women employees within the organisation.
‘We’ve got amazing female leaders that are paving the way for future leaders,’ Dr Higgins said.
According to Dr Higgins, talk about a glass ceiling for women in leadership positions needs to go hand in hand with an understanding that change involves everyone.
‘Our male colleagues are our allies in leadership,’ she said.
‘What we need to do, irrespective if it’s a male or a female colleague, is to be the person that helps open those doors, that actually helps smash that glass and provide those opportunities,’ she told The Good GP podcast.
‘What doesn’t help is when we close off spaces, [such as] restricting opportunities because somebody works part time, or restricting opportunities because they think we should be at home with our families.
‘We need to make sure that it’s an equal playing field, and we’re judged for who we are and what we do, and how we are as clinicians.’
The RACGP President makes the point that her mentors in Maryborough are both men, recalling the influence of Drs Robert Carson and David Tynan, the latter of whom still treats Higgins family members to this day.
On the podcast, Dr Higgins again stresses the ‘incredibly important’ value of mentorship.
‘There are a lot of programs available, such as the Mentoring Program, through the RACGP, or upskilling in leadership skills, or asking someone who you admire to mentor you,’ she said.
Such an approach has helped her on her journey to RACGP Presidency, which she was voted into last year, but Dr Higgins is no stranger to the boardroom.
Having taken her first board post almost 20 years ago, she says that she was often the only woman in the room and recalls that the attitude of those around her was crucial.
‘I remember breastfeeding my newborn baby at a board meeting,’ the RACGP President said.
‘That was accepted and that then opened the doors for others – these are simple examples about how small things can make a big difference.’
Despite the progress, Dr Higgins is under no illusions that the journey is complete.
‘We’re heading in the right direction, but there are still the same issues that I had to deal with,’ she said.
Asked to reflect on the barriers that remain, Dr Higgins believes that properly funding longer consultations – something raised but not detailed in the recent Strengthening Medicare Taskforce report – is a priority.
‘The evidence shows that women GPs spend longer with their patients and often in more complex situations,’ she said.
‘With mental health and women’s health being top presenting issues, we need to ensure that women are rewarded for the types of medicine that they choose to practice.
‘We need to ensure that we increase the rebates for those longer consultations.’
Despite the challenges facing general practice – which is why Dr Higgins leaned into an advocacy role – she is unequivocal that with the right support the career can still be profoundly rewarding.
It is a message she tells young female medical graduates wondering if general practice is right for them, with Dr Higgins now passing on the fierce enthusiasm first kindled back in country Victoria.
‘I love general practice,’ she said.
‘It is a wonderful career for women. I love the depth, the breadth, the cradle-to-grave medicine.
‘General practice has given me careers within a career. I’ve been able to be a clinician, a supervisor, and educator, and advocate.
‘It’s allowed me to develop those longitudinal relationships with patients that provide meaning to what I do.’
A The Good GP podcast episode for International Women’s Day features an interview with Dr Nicole Higgins. It is due to be published on 8 March.
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Dr Olataga Alofivae-Doorbinnia   8/03/2023 9:11:20 AM

Just a few words - Inspiring Dr Nicola Higgins !
As a GP owner in partnership with my non-GP husband - we can do it and I had my 2 beautiful children through the process .yes we are passionate and love our platform to do good work in our community. Great story and hope more doctors will take up the challenge to live and work in general practice !