A Rural GP: Finding the spark within Indigenous communities

By , Melinda McCarthy published on 18/01/2023 Indigenous Health, Locum work,

One of Ochre Recruitment's loyalty program highlights is the Golden Gratitude Award, where each quarter, our consultants nominate one outstanding Ochre GP. Not only do we celebrate and reward their remarkable achievements, but we also donate $1,000 to a deserving individual or charity of their choice.

This quarter we are delighted to celebrate Dr Sara Van Tinteren, one of our dedicated General Practitioners currently locuming at the Ramingining Clinic in the Northern Territory. Sara is donating her $1000 to the Women's House at Ramingining, where the local Indigenous women who endure domestic violence and abuse, receive much-needed support from volunteer staff and each other.

Firstly congratulations on winning our latest Golden Gratitude Award and for the outstanding work you're doing for Aboriginal Medical Services in Australia. Tell us a bit about your early family life?

I was born in the UK but came to Australia with my family when I was 3 years old. I grew up just outside Brisbane and went to school and university in Brisbane. I have 3 siblings, one who is a nurse and a large extended family overseas, some of whom are doctors or nurses. We discovered that our mutual grandmother trained to be a nurse in Amsterdam in the 1910’s so she could move to London to escape difficult family circumstances, so maybe we are following in her footsteps.

 What set of circumstances or people inspired you to study medicine?

I started my working life as a nurse but went straight from nursing training into Medicine. I remember watching the doctors in the hospitals and thinking “I can do that”. It was the early 70’s, women were becoming pushy and I didn’t want to be in a doctor’s handmaiden role. Of course, now nursing has advanced to being so much more than that, especially in remote areas. One of the reasons I enjoy working in the bush is that there are so many highly skilled and experienced nurses and we all spark off each other as a team.

Why did you pursue a General Practice pathway?

I did 3 years on a Psychiatry rotation, but it all got a bit too much. When I went into General Practice, I found I enjoyed the eclectic mix of patients and presentations. There is also a strong sense of autonomy and the opportunity to find your own areas of subspecialty. As I’ve developed experience in General Practice, I’ve learnt to treat patients with some health problems myself, eg minor mental health problems, and refer others to colleagues, eg sports medicine and orthopaedics where I have less experience. So it’s a flexible, diverse and tremendously interesting career.

What factors do you think are currently contributing to the radical drop in graduates interested in General Practice? In your opinion, what could governments do to reverse this?

This is a pity because young doctors don’t realise the opportunities that are available in General Practice, especially rural and remote. Whenever I’ve had medical students or young doctors come out to the bush they’ve enjoyed it and often want to pursue rural and remote placements after graduation. It’s good that it has become its own subspecialty with College fellowship available. [ACCRM]. However, the obstacles seem to be mainly the lack of social, family, and accommodation support rather than career advancement. It will need better forward planning to address the possibilities for family life.

Tell me a bit about your experiences working in AMS? What do you like most about this scope of clinical work?

I’ve been working with indigenous patients now for almost 10 years, including 4 years full-time on Badu Island in the Torres Strait. It’s an extremely rewarding area of work. The medicine is interesting with a broad range of acute and chronic conditions. I’ve enjoyed the challenges of having to diagnose and treat difficult tropical infections as well as address the burgeoning epidemic of diabetes, heart and kidney disease that is affecting most of the Western world. The patients are mostly appreciative of staff having to work so far from their homes. And of course, I’ve met so many amazing people from the oldest continuing living culture on earth. There is strong camaraderie with the other health workers and I’ve made lifelong friends.

What are your favourite locations in which to locum and why?

Difficult to say. Hard to choose! Working in the Torres Strait was great -  it was like being on the movie set of Blue Lagoon - a true tropical paradise. The Western Desert people have wonderful artworks which is a big draw card for me. However, the top end of the NT is where I’m enjoying the most now. The scenery is beautiful, the Yolgnu people are lovely and the health centres are reasonably well-staffed and resourced.

When you are not working, what do you enjoy doing to relax and unwind?

I’m regenerating 2 acres of southeast Queensland rainforest. As you get older, gardening and horticulture provide a wonderful way to participate and watch nature in action. Travelling in South East Asia and returning to the UK for visits also figures most years when pandemics don’t interfere.

What advice would you give to GPs considering work in an AMS?

Give it a go! I’ve yet to meet a doctor or nurse who hasn’t enjoyed it. Most of us can’t wait to get back to the open spaces and red dust once we’ve been back in city life for a few weeks.

You have nominated the women’s house in Ramingining, as the recipient of your $1000… can you tell us a little about the purpose of the women's house and why you have chosen them to receive the donation?

Indigenous women suffer high rates of domestic violence and abuse. They are isolated, poorly educated, and have to manage family life on tight budgets. They need a space to share their stories and get support from each other as well as from professionals. They also often need a place of refuge where they can have time out but remain in their own communities rather than have to travel to big centres.

The women’s house in Ramingining is still very much in its early days. They need money for basics such as an urn, tea and coffee-making equipment, as well as assistance for other activities. Ramingining is fortunate in having a trained social worker who is helping to set up the Women’s house, and health centre staff are also interested in contributing. But we are all hoping that it will become a self-perpetuating project with women learning to support each other and help younger women while remaining true to their traditional culture.  The Yolgnu people have a strong and proud culture and I’m very happy to contribute in any way possible.

Thanks to Ochre for helping to make it work. 

Thank you so much for sharing your story, Sara. And thank you again for all your dedication and going above and beyond for the communities we serve. We are lucky to have you in our Ochre family.


If you'd like to learn more about our loyalty program please click here.

For more information about our GP AMS locum opportunities across Australia, take a look at our Indigenous Health page. Alternatively, call Melissa Gomez-Gaviria on 0457 170 310 or email [email protected]

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