Beyond the Practice Part 4: Rural GP & Author Sonia Henry in Splendid Isolation

By , Melinda McCarthy published on 16/08/2023 locum, Rural Generalism, Ochre Recruitment,

In part four of our series, Beyond the Practice, we shine the spotlight on the refreshingly genuine and down-to-earth GP Sonia Henry. A published author, Sonia is passionate about the welfare of doctors and improving health equity, especially in remote Australia and First Nations health. We catch up briefly with Sonia during her current locum role in WA.

Sonia published her first book, a darkly funny and sexy novel, that takes a compelling look into the reality of being a junior doctor, in 2019. “My first book Going Under, a fictionalized version of my intern year as a junior doctor, was an Australian best seller”.

You talk of and highlight the bureaucracy and inadequate management of the training of medical students… the stress that they endure. What do you think can be done to change the current model of medical training? If you were in a position to affect positive change, what would some of those changes entail?

I would open up the training places, and give unaccredited registrars clear rights and a pathway into a training program. I’d make exams cheaper, I’d pay overtime, and I’d seriously wind back the powers that administrators rather than clinicians have. There’s such a shortage of doctors in regional Australia it's crazy to me that it’s so hard to get onto certain specialty programs. These are simple solutions and should be implemented.

And what advice would you give to medical students contemplating a General Practice pathway?

I’d tell them that there’s no other specialty or job in medicine that allows you to control your own life and well-being the way general practice can, when you finish the training pathway. I have seen the whole of Australia, most of the world, and written two books. I can stay wherever I want to, for as long as I like, and met some amazing people and learned a lot about myself and about being a doctor. I don’t know many jobs you can do that as easily as you can as being a GP.

Sonias’ most recent offering, put your feet in the dirt, girl released in May 2023, is again receiving praise from the medical profession and wider community. Sonias’ memoir chronicles her time as a solo GP in the Pilbara and Outback NSW, as she grapples with her personal life journey in a world in which the old divides of city and country, east coast and west coast, Indigenous and non-Indigenous profoundly affect the failures of the medical system.

After joining a locum agency a few years back, Sonia asked for a solo GP role somewhere far away in a remote region. The right opportunity didn’t take long to reveal itself. Sonia packed her bag and was off to the Pilbara… not ever being to WA before. Driving along the North Western Highway as she turned a bend in the road leading to her destination she reflects “I saw the red earth of the Pilbara & those red tabletop mountains & that amazing sense of time & peace… it was incredible… it felt like I was somewhere very very old. I felt like I was stuck in my head & suddenly there was this amazing vastness in front of me’’

The space and untouched landscapes of the Pilbara gave you the chance to do some self-work, to think and reflect, to forgive yourself almost, from decisions you made that you may not have made with that wonderful thing we call hindsight. How do you convey to GPs considering a locum in remote Australia, just how life-changing and inspiring a Rural GP assignment can be?

Being a GP in remote Australia is hard, there’s no doubt. You can be very isolated and access is at times near impossible to hospitals and tertiary care, depending on how remote you go. That can be very tough. That being said, you’ll meet great colleagues, and also open your eyes to what real Australia is. Australia isn’t just Sydney or Melbourne or Brisbane or wherever. It’s a giant country with a huge variation in health outcomes and pathologies. When you’re seeing teenagers with mechanical heart valves after RHD has ravaged their cardiovascular health it changes your perspective, I tell you what. But then, you can go for a walk along a place like Cable Beach in Broome, or swim with manta rays in Coral Bay, or see ancient Aboriginal rock art, and that’s just so incredible to be able to experience those things.

Sonia writes with heart about the salt-of-the-earth people she meets during her locums as a rural GP, including a ringer who reads Tolstoy, a dream-walking elder, and a woman determined to end her own life on her own terms. She highlights the human cost of the challenges of access to medical equipment and resources for both staff and patients and the failure of mining magnets to invest some of their significant profits back into the health and well-being of the people who work for them.

From the Pilbara Sonia continued her locum journey and landed in Western NSW where she gained a bird's eye view of what is “inside the gap”. “It was like a Third World health situation four hours from Dubbo. I just couldn’t believe it”

Its not so much about the patients you treat in places like Bourke, Brewarrina and Walgett, it’s the people you meet. Can you give an example of someone special you met during your time in WNSW and what you learned about yourself through him/her?

I met so many amazing people on my travels. My friend Joey, who is an Aboriginal Health worker in Brewarrina, and a man called Brad Steadman who runs the museum there- both taught me a lot about the history of Aboriginal people in the northwest of NSW and also the immense power of their culture and of the fish traps and the land. That was pretty amazing. To have friends who teach you those things I would otherwise never have known- that was a real joy, to see that side of Australia.

So what’s next for Sonia Henry?

I’m up working in the Kimberley for four months, so you’ll probably see me having a matsoes in Broome. In the meantime, I’m thinking of trying my hand at new book ideas, and keep on exploring and living my life, the only way I know how. I’ve always been a bit of a nomad, and actually, I’ve realised there’s worse ways to live. The beauty of GP is that when you want to pause for a while,  you can, and if you want to go somewhere else- you can do that too. The door and windows are always open, and for someone who hates feeling trapped that gives me a great sense of peace.

Thank you Sonia for providing us with a window into life as a Rural GP. Thank you for raising awareness on the maldistribution of healthcare across our vast continent through your real stories. And thank you for your dedication to providing primary care to our brothers and sisters in rural and remote communities.

You can hear Sonia reflecting on her remote locum experiences in an interview on ABCs Conversations. Find some downtime, grab a cuppa, sit back and listen to this wonderfully open and inspiring conversation.

Alternatively, you can order her books online:


Remote and Rural GPs are incredible. What they do and have to deal with… with often, so few resources is nothing short of remarkable. It’s fair to say that they are the unsung heroes of healthcare.

If you’re a GP and haven’t yet had the opportunity to “put your feet in the dirt”, and you think it’s something you’d like to do get in touch with our Rural Generalist recruitment team by calling Phil Dixon on 0424 550 378 or dropping a line to [email protected] We’d love to hear from you.

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