RACGP award ‘a tipping point’: Reflections of a GP trailblazer

Jolyon Attwooll

5/07/2023 3:25:29 PM

Dr Sarah-Jane Springer looks back on how a 2009 RACGP award influenced her mindset and fuelled a determination to make a difference.

Dr Sarah-Jane Springer
Dr Sarah-Jane Springer says the confidence gained from winning the RACGP National Rural Faculty award in 2009 was empowering. (Image: Claudio Kirac from Art-Work Agency)

In 2009, Dr Sarah-Jane Springer – or Dr McEwan as she was then – won the college’s rural registrar of the year.
After being approached to reflect on her career since that moment and explore the impact of winning, the Wiradjuri woman says she gasped when she realised the amount of time that had gone by.
‘This makes me feel rather aged when I like to delude myself that I am still youthful,’ she told newsGP.
Given the lengthy list of qualifications and awards that have followed, however, Dr Springer has clearly not sat on her laurels.
A time she acknowledges as ‘rather busy’ has produced a formidable list of post-nominals: Fellowship of Advanced Rural General Practice, an Advanced Diploma in Obstetrics and Gynaecology through RANZCOG, ACRRM Fellowship, a diploma of Clinical Education, as well as a Masters of Health Administration.
That long list is rivalled by a collection of awards and bursaries. She has the unique honour of winning the rural registrar of the year for both the RACGP and ACRRM, the latter in 2010 – and was also the first female Aboriginal fellow of ACRRM.
You need to pause for breath to list the rest: the inaugural Newcastle University Indigenous Alumni of the year in 2011, with a WA Health Award for excellence in primary care following in 2012.
Then there was a Roberta Sykes Foundation Bursary followed in 2015, with the Australian Federation of Medical Women (AFMW) Purple Bush Leaves Medicine bursaries awarded more recently to assist her studies in a Leadership for Clinicians program and work towards Fellowship in Nutritional and Environmental Medicine studies.
‘Rather busy’ indeed – particularly when you consider Dr Springer also spent a decade as a full-time rural generalist in Port Hedland in WA, as well as a stint working for a healthcare fund, and the past few years working in rural South-West Queensland.
She describes the accumulation of so many achievements as a way of ‘ensuring that I had every course, every piece of knowledge that I could conjure up under my belt, to validate my medical existence’.
Looking back, she also recognises the momentum from the first award she received in medicine.
‘The stimulus of winning the RACGP National Rural Faculty award in 2009 was a tipping point for me, someone who has intermittently been crippled by imposter syndrome,’ she said.
‘I didn’t realise how much confidence such recognition would provide me – to know that my hard work was noted and recognised by my peers was empowering.’
For Dr Springer, such recognition is one thing, but the difference she can make in her work is something else altogether.
‘Some of my greatest career highlights stem from advocacy for my rural and remote patients, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander patients, which is my greatest passion being a Wiradjuri woman myself,’ she said.
Part of that advocacy has been undertaken via her role on numerous organisational boards, including the Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association and the Royal Flying Doctors Service in Queensland. 
‘My most rewarding moments come from advocating directly for individual patients and knowing that in partnership with them, I am making a direct difference to their healthcare and lives,’ she said.
Somehow, Dr Springer has also managed to find time to feature in a three-part documentary series, ‘I heart my people’, also aimed at making a difference by encouraging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to consider careers in health.
Other forays into media – an area of work she enjoys and would like to do more of – include medical journalism, while she is also currently in a Department of Health and Aged Care campaign aimed at reminding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to access COVID boosters.
Being asked to reflect about the award has given Dr Springer a greater sense of its ripple effect, she says.
‘To be honest it is not until now … [that] I have come to realise how much recognition such as this has made a difference to the opportunities I have sought out, the education that I continue to seek and the advocacy I still have passion to provide,’ she said.
And while Dr Springer says the RACGP award was not something she tended to raise with prospective employers, she believes its effect has been significant psychologically.
‘The internal validation of such recognition was the breath of fresh air to keep me going, working hard and keeping my personal goals in mind,’ she said.
Given her experience, it is perhaps little surprise that she urges RACGP members to consider which colleagues deserve to be nominated.
‘You really have no idea how much it can change their internal narrative and how much this positivity could assist to drive them forward,’ she said.
Now on maternity leave in preparation for her first child, Dr Springer is contemplating a ‘much-needed’ change of pace in life and career. It is a shift she both welcomes and admits to feeling some anxiety about, with her post-maternity work not yet clear.
What she does know, however, is that her passion for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander healthcare and working with rural and remote patients is something that will continue to burn, along with a determination to shine a light for others to follow.
‘I am a firm believer of “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it”,’ she said.
‘I am always keen to demonstrate leadership for my community in everything I do, making myself vulnerable to ensure that the next generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, particularly young women from rural and remote backgrounds like myself, have positive role models to aspire to.
‘The effort I have put into my career over the past, almost 20 years is for this purpose: advocacy, leadership, and inspiring others.
‘If I can do it, anyone can.’
Know someone doing exceptional work in Australian general practice? Nominate them for the 2023 RACGP National Awards through the college website. Nominations are open until 16 July.
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