GP Locum experiences in the Kimberley - Q&A with Dr Richard Bills
At the heart of Ochre Recruitment’s new loyalty program 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.
We talk to Richard Bills, our inaugural Golden Gratitude Award winner, about his current locum experiences in the incredible Kimberley region, what inspires him about locum work (37 locums and counting), and who the lucky recipient of his award donation will be.
Congratulations Richard for being our first Golden Gratitude Award winner. Tell us a little bit about your career – where did you grow up, where did you study and what inspired you to become a GP?
I grew up just on the edge of suburban Melbourne and studied medicine at Melbourne University. I didn’t come from a family of doctors but I knew I wanted to be a doctor from a reasonably young age. This was right around the time I chased my younger brother around the house and he fell and split his head open. Our mother was furious at me and said, "Right, you're coming to the doctors to watch what happens." So I went with her and she made me sit on a stool, by the couch, as the doctor anaesthetised and stitched up my younger brother. I promptly fainted somewhere through this whole procedure, came to and thought, "That was pretty amazing. That's something I would like to be able to do."
I'm surprised this experience didn't put you off medicine for life?
It was very funny. But it motivated me from primary school age to think that's what I wanted to do. I never saw myself working in the city and always wanted to be a rural generalist.
When I graduated, I had some excellent hospital jobs, based on the fact that I always expressed the desire to want to gain skills that I could use as a rural GP. I got to do interesting things in paediatrics, infectious diseases and obstetrics, for example, and build up my skills. I then completed the non-mandatory family medicine training which finished with a year in England, and I came back to Australia where I settled as a GP in the town of Woodend near Melbourne where I then spent the next 30 years. This was a great place for my wife Cate and I to bring up our soon-to-be new baby and three more children. We built the practice up from two to eight full-time GPs.
What inspired you to try locum work?
I could never see myself retiring, sitting back in a deck chair, and watching the sunset every day. When I first became aware of Ochre I decided to dip my toe in the water and do the odd locum here and there while I was still working in rural general practice. I started locuming during my holidays which I enjoyed. I was then diagnosed with prostate cancer which made me stop a little bit and reexamine my world. I decided it was a sign to stop my mainstream general practice altogether and become a rural locum. That was 18 months ago, and I’ve been locuming ever since I recovered from my treatment.
How has COVID impacted your locum work?
I was doing a two-week locum in Karratha in Western Australia back in March when COVID hit, which ended up lasting four-and-a-half months before I decided it'd be nice to go home. Cate works part-time as a surgical assistant in an operating theatre and her work dried up due to restrictions on elective surgery. She could then come with me on this trip to WA. She's never been to the Kimberley before, so she's having a marvellous time. It's a stunning, stunning place.
Did you have to quarantine for two weeks before you were able to start your locum?
Yes. We got the little pocket-sized hotel room in the Novotel on Murray Street with no fresh air and no sunlight. We weren’t allowed to leave our room under any circumstances. But it was honestly two of the most relaxing weeks of our recent lives because we couldn't do anything. We took a suitcase full of books, so we read, watched movies and Zoomed our family and friends when we could. I can't complain as we were very fortunate. As you know, Victoria has been restricted for so long, so one of our most memorable moments of this trip was being released from quarantine and walking out onto the streets of Perth to a melee of people. No-one was wearing masks and we sat in a café watching the world go by, adjusting to our new-found freedoms.
What do you love about locuming in rural areas? What inspires you about the work you now do?
It's a combination of two things. The first is the people I work with and work for – in other words, the population we serve. One of the consequences of living in remote Australia is that access to services is dramatically less than what it is in the middle of suburban Sydney or Melbourne.
A fantastic survey report came out two years ago that showed the happiness of people directly increases the more rural you live, until you get to very isolated places where happiness takes a bit of a dip. But you’re still happier than the average person living in large urban centres. When you work in rural and remote Australia, you meet people who are genuinely lovely, who are there for the right reasons. They define the countryside you're working in and are truly inspiring.
The second thing I love is what I loosely refer to as being on the inside. If you travel anywhere as a tourist, you see what the people want the tourists to see. But the minute you work somewhere, you meet the real local people. One of the first questions I ask people is, "Where do you go?" These local insights are fantastic and add to the whole experience.
What’s been your favourite locum so far?
It’s so hard to say. I think in terms of beauty Exmouth in WA is a stunning place to visit with a combination of amazing land and water-based things to see and do and a very cohesive health-related community. Exmouth is on the Ningaloo Reef which makes the Great Barrier Reef pale into insignificance. It’s stunning and right on the beach. You just put on your snorkel and goggles and there’s all this fish life with beautiful coral. If you Google the world's top 10 best dive sites, the only one in Australia is off Ningaloo - there's none in Queensland where you'd expect them to be. Exmouth is a remote community in terms of access to other services but it's a township of about 1,500, maybe 2,000 people, which has up to 20,000 people for six months of the year when the travellers are in during the dry season.
Although I love Exmouth, I often have mixed feelings about going back to places I've been before, because I enjoy the opportunity to experience a different hospital, working environment and group of people. There is so much to see in rural Australia and so many adventures.
You've nominated your youngest daughter to receive the $1,000 donation. Why have you chosen her and how will she benefit?
I was delighted I could donate to my youngest daughter. She's at university studying physiotherapy in Ballarat in Victoria. She's only 21 and it's been a very, very difficult year for her. She usually works as a pool lifeguard and swimming instructor for the local council, but through COVID the swimming pools have been shut in Victoria. And because the pools are council-run she’s deemed to be a government employee and is not eligible for JobKeeper. She lost her income but she's also a year short of being eligible for JobSeeker. Not having a job has meant she hasn't had the resources to be able to do many things for herself.
We would like to surprise her with this donation and hopefully offer some encouragement to hang in there as everyone in Victoria is struggling at the moment. We feel so much for everyone having to manage day to day who’ve been restricted for so long. Thank you Ochre.
Thank you so much Richard for your time and for all you do for the communities of rural & remote Australia.