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New focus on Top End doctors’ health

Practising medicine in the Northern Territory can be as rewarding as anywhere else, but it has its own particular challenges. Many NT doctors work in remote and isolated regions where they have to be able to rely on themselves, without the kind of support they’d find in the capital cities.

Until recently, there were very limited health services for NT doctors and no dedicated support network. But in 2016, a group of Adelaide-based health professionals stepped into the breach and set up Doctor’s Health NT, which offers a 24-hour advisory helpline, telemedicine and a network of local GPs trained to see doctors and medical students as patients.

“The NT medical community is small, with only about 1000 doctors,” says Adelaide-based GP Dr Roger Sexton, who as director of Doctors’ Health SA was instrumental in setting up the NT satellite.

“There are interesting challenges in doing medicine out there. There’s a wide range of workplaces, from aboriginal communities to work out on the islands or in remote communities, and doctors are expected to be well-rounded and pretty self-reliant. But when it comes to their own health, one solution doesn’t always work for all doctors.”

Dr Sexton says it’s easy for NT doctors to get isolated because they personally know most of the other doctors in the Territory, which means they can’t easily get treated anonymously.

“A lot of the doctors find the convenience of self-treatment too easy. If you’re a dermatologist in Melbourne, you’ve got a very good choice of who you can see. But in the NT the options are limited. Many doctors have concerns about confidentiality, and there’s always the issue of notification sitting in the background.

“When they do seek help, they often do it selectively. They’ll see a GP for some issues but not for mental health. Often they practice a form of blended care where they do a bit of self-investigation, self-prescribing and self-referral.”

Doctors’ Health NT has a 24-hour helpline, but Dr Sexton says the penetration is pretty low, which means things have to be done a little differently.

“We’re running a trial for GP teleconsults, which gives doctors the chance to consult with a doctor who is not necessarily part of their personal network. We’ve had very strong support for that model: it’s a great way for an initial talk about an issue and some follow-up.”

He says telemedicine is an excellent way to break down isolation, particularly for doctors who pride themselves on being tough and are reluctant to admit they’re struggling.

But Doctors’ Health NT has also established a network of GPs on the ground who are trained to treat other doctors and medical students.

“We’re trying to grow that network. We have ten GPs at the moment which we hope to expand to 30.”

Dr Sexton says having a GP-centric model for doctors’ health is critical because it can address both physical and mental health issues.

“With a psychiatrist-based model you miss out on all the physical stuff, which can be very important. GPs are also a non-stigmatising way of getting a foot in the door. You can say to doctors that the approach is physical, and along the way we’ll be asking you about your life as a doctor.”

You can access the services of Doctors’ Health NT here.

For more information about health issues for doctors, access a range of online resources from Doctors’ Health Services Pty Ltd.