Jane McDonald knows a thing or two about getting her hands – and brightly coloured scrubs – dirty.
The 23-year-old had never been further west than Toowoomba when she volunteered for Bond University’s rural medical placement program in her final year of study.
“I had only ever completed placements following doctors around busy hospitals and watching procedures from afar,” Dr McDonald said.
“But I started hearing stories about students who had gone out bush and were thrown in the deep end, which really appealed to me.”
Before long, she was assessing mustering injuries, suturing farmers’ wounds, and transporting patients in desperate need of surgery hundreds of kilometres across the outback.
“Out bush, doctors operate on a fly-in fly-out basis, so people come from far and wide to receive medical attention,” Dr McDonald said.
“When we touched down in Thargomindah, many of the people were lining up to have their skin checked.
“At home, if a doctor doesn’t like the look of a mole or spot, they will send you for a biopsy and then decide whether to remove it or not. The whole process can take a few weeks.
“But these people have driven for hours and might not get the chance to see another doctor for weeks or months, so the instructions were simple – if you don’t like the look of it, cut it out and stitch it back up.
“Luckily, country folk are tough, so they didn’t mind that I was nervous and hadn’t performed many of those procedures before.”
Brisbane born and raised, Dr McDonald moved to the Gold Coast in 2017 to kickstart her medical career.
This week, she will swap scrubs and gloves for an academic gown as she gears up to graduate as a Doctor of Medicine.
She will start her career with a wealth of practical experience and deep understanding of the challenges that come with delivering healthcare in rural and regional Australia.
“When I was out rural, I saw conditions that I hadn’t been exposed to in big hospitals. A lot of conditions are treated early in the city and don’t have the chance to progress, but out there, people just don’t have the same access to healthcare,” Dr McDonald said.
“I worked within Aboriginal communities and got to understand the important differences between western and Indigenous healthcare.”
It was during this time, working in the remote communities of Blackall, Broken Hill, Merindee and Windorah to name a few, that Dr McDonald’s passion for rural medicine took flight.
“I worked directly with the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) whilst based in Charleville. It was just an unbelievable experience and a great opportunity to see how they work behind the scenes,” she said.
“At home in Brisbane or on the Gold Coast, if you get hurt or you’re in an accident you can get to a hospital within half an hour. But out there, you have to figure out how to get a patient to a hospital that is potentially hundreds of kilometres away.
“I travelled with the RFDS and was tasked with assessing incoming calls from doctors and figuring out which patients to prioritise and whether we had capacity to pick up more patients on the way.
“There’s a lot of logistics and communication involved, and I loved every minute of it.”
During her placement, Dr McDonald witnessed the critical shortage of doctors across rural Queensland.
“Queensland desperately needs more rural doctors. There just simply aren’t enough of them,” she said.
“I’ve recently been accepted onto the Queensland Rural Generalist Pathway – a program supporting junior medical officers with targeted training to operate as rural medical professionals.
“This pathway focuses on getting doctors trained and out into these rural communities so that they can start making a real difference.”
Dr McDonald’s rural placement was both an eye-opening and fulfilling experience, and one that she urges all medical students to consider.
“I had the sense that I was actually helping people. When you give someone the time and the equal access to health care, they're very grateful,” she said.
“It also helped me immensely with my clinical skills, because in the city you're often just watching someone do it, but out there, you’re the one doing it.
“And really, the only way to learn is by getting your hands dirty.”