Joining the social circle in rural Australia

Doug Hendrie

19/01/2018 2:38:17 PM

Weaving into a small community’s social fabric is a key aspect of life as a rural GP.

L–R: Rural GPs Dr Mel Considine and Dr Jim Berryman agree it can take time for forge new friendships, but both said it is worth the effort.
L–R: Rural GPs Dr Mel Considine and Dr Jim Berryman agree it can take time for forge new friendships, but both said it is worth the effort.

Dr Mel Considine was certain she had done it. She had made her first friends in the small town of Clare, South Australia.
Upon first arriving in 2015 with her husband, who is also a GP, Dr Considine knew only two locals – her brother and sister-in-law. So she went along to a young professional group and met two personable young women. Possible friends, she thought to herself.
The very next day both women came to Dr Considine’s clinic to discuss Pap smears and more complex medical issues.
Dr Considine was deflated.
‘I was thinking friendship, they were sussing out a new GP,’ she told newsGP, laughing.
It was funny, but it was also a genuine issue. In a town of slightly more than 3000 people, it was difficult for Dr Considine to meet people as friends rather than as patients.
It is no secret that Australia has a persistent issue of healthcare availability outside of the major cities. Even attractive relocation packages and the wider range of workplace experiences afforded by rural health haven’t solved the lack of rural, regional and remote GPs. Why? There is one answer to which many GPs keep returning – loneliness. They say would feel isolated if they moved far from their social circle.
How would they break into a smaller town where the family that arrived thirty years ago are still considered newcomers?
The answer is straightforward, according to Dr Considine: work at it. Rural towns’ social circles can be often be hard to crack, but once you’re in, you’re in.
Small towns are often highly social places. People gather at events such as the weekend footy match, Tuesday trivia night, Rotary, craft groups, the Country Women’s Association, and monthly book or wine-tasting clubs. There can also be an immediate social network with nearby allied health professionals, or by swapping notes with doctors from the nearest hospital.
In the case of Dr Considine, the real breakthrough came when she fell pregnant and started attending antenatal classes.
‘That worked really well for us because we could connect on a different level with those couples,’ she said. ‘We told them: we are here as people, not as doctors. We haven’t been through a pregnancy either.’
The experience proved a great leveller. After her baby was born, Dr Considine and her husband stayed in touch with several of the other couples, swapping tips and catching up for playground time.
Footy would have been a quicker way in, Dr Considine believes. Australian rules football is Clare’s lifeblood, as it is for so many other Australian towns, but she and her husband weren’t into competitive sport. So once they had made their first friends, they tried other options. New friends emerged from book clubs, wine appreciation clubs, and Parkrun, a Saturday morning social run.
‘A country town can seem closed,’ Dr Considine said. ‘But it takes time to build friendships. You have to work at it. Now we feel we’re lucky to be here.’
Off the mainland
It’s a similar story for Dr Jim Berryman, a GP who lives with his wife and kids in Boat Harbour, a town of 5000 people on Tasmania’s north-west coast.
‘Twenty years ago, I was sitting in freezing cold Dunedin in New Zealand thinking, I’ve got to get out of here,’ he told newsGP.
Dr Berryman eagerly accepted a job opportunity at a Tasmanian hospital. Eventually, he and his wife bought a house in Boat Harbour and Dr Berryman opened a clinic in nearby Wynyard.
‘It’s no good working somewhere and living far away,’ he said. ‘You’ve got to be part of it.’
Dr Berryman and his wife arrived in Boat Harbour with two kids, and had three more. As was the case with Dr Considine, the Berrymans found family life to be an effective way to weave themselves into a town’s social fabric.
‘Kids are the great icebreaker. That’s how we broke in, basically around children,’ Dr Berryman said. ‘Our children made friends, and we made friends with the parents. That’s how we became part of the local community.’
Dr Berryman also joined the local surf club, and his kids volunteered at the fire brigade. Weekend sport helped them make contacts, too. But he notes that most of his friendship group consists largely of relative newcomers, like him.
Boat Harbour has drawn migrants from New Zealand, South Africa and mainland Australia. It was harder to crack the families who had been in the town for five generations. The healthcare turnover rate is high – many young doctors come for a year or two and move on. But some stay and become fast friends.
‘You’ve got to want to come to a place. The young doctors who settle here do so for a reason,’ Dr Berryman said.
Is it worth it? Dr Berryman laughs. ‘It’s great,’ he said.
He loves the sea, the nearby forests, the quiet, and the tight-knit friends he and his family have made. He and his family are not going anywhere.

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