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Doctor as patient

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In the week that the AMA released its 2017 Public Hospital Report Card, a dose of salmonella saw me experience first-hand the pressures that public hospitals are under, and appreciate the value of a GP home visit for urgent care in circumstances when you can’t access your usual GP.

I had flown into Canberra for a weekend meeting of the AMA Council of General Practice, already feeling unwell with established symptoms of food poisoning. I was becoming sicker and more dehydrated. With abdominal pain and rebound tenderness, I found myself at the local emergency department at 10pm on the night of my arrival.

During the next eight hours I got to see my hospital colleagues dealing with the pressures of managing multiple patients in varying states of illness and distress, with limited resources and a bed capacity unable to keep up with demand.

Here it seems the world revolves around assessing and prioritising the steady stream through the door, although things can quickly change when a major incident happens. While I was there, the deluge of more than 80 patients affected by a local bushfire appeared to almost overwhelm available resources. The doctors, nurses and other staff worked diligently to ensure that patients were seen as soon as possible but, on a night like this, benchmark targets seemed to have very little relevance.

Sometime around 5am, with blood cultures taken and intravenous rehydration commenced, a long awaited physical examination revealed that my earlier rebound tenderness had resolved although there was still significant point tenderness. With no acute abdomen I was discharged around 6am Saturday.

During the morning I deteriorated, with worsening diarrhoea, vomiting and abdominal pain. I desperately needed a doctor and did not want a return visit to the ED. It was time to call one of the after-hours GP services, which sent a GP to see me in my hotel room. Following a comprehensive examination, which revealed marked lower abdominal tenderness and a positive Murphy’s sign, I had a script for ciprofloxacin. Armed with this, some ondansetron and gastro-stop I tried to make my flight home only to be bumped because I was too sick. Following a visit to the after-hours chemist and after commencing my ciprofloxacin I finally turned the corner, improving enough to fly home Monday morning.

I understand the health system better than most and know how daunting it can be to navigate – particularly at times when your usual GP is not there to guide. This experience was a timely reminder of the challenges our patients experience when seeking care, and why the AMA’s advocacy for our profession and our patients is so important.   

Besides getting a taste of what my patients experience when seeking care outside of surgery hours, this episode has also highlighted the importance of looking after our own health. I did try and soldier on for too long, not wanting to let my colleagues down.

We are not super human and we do get sick. When we are, perhaps we should consider what advice we would give a patient in the same situation. We need to be kind to ourselves and recognise when we need another’s medical expertise.