HOMELY: Dr Ian Sutherland, Dr Andrew Gault stand with receptionist Jennie Ciavola outside Port Fairy Medical Clinic. Picture: Mark Witte

HOMELY: Dr Ian Sutherland, Dr Andrew Gault stand with receptionist Jennie Ciavola outside Port Fairy Medical Clinic. Picture: Mark Witte

Real country practice

Port Fairy Medical Clinic thriving after 30 years

Health
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A medical clinic in Port Fairy is about more than just treating patients, it's the ultimate country practice.

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THERE'S a tempting spread of cupcakes on the table, and a glossy photo-book titled "The Family Album" with lots of beaming smiles at what appear to be happy family gatherings.

They're the sort of little touches you'd expect to find in a country home.

Except this is not a home, but a country medical practice, albeit with a family feel.

"The Family Album", in reality a record of Port Fairy Medical Centre staff get-togethers, is testament to the closeness of this tight-knit group.

The cupcakes, baked by a colleague, are a regular homely addition to the staff tearoom.

For the 10 doctors who currently practise from the Villiers Street clinic, it's the ultimate country practice.

For the community, it's a reassuring presence that's been providing cradle-to-the-grave care to residents for the past three decades.

In an era when a shortage of medical manpower is a perennial problem for many rural communities, the clinic has not only managed to attract and grow its team of doctors, but also expanded with branches in Koroit and Macarthur.

TEAM WORK: Dr Andrew Gault and Dr Eleanor Donelan are proud of Port Fairy Medical Clinic.

TEAM WORK: Dr Andrew Gault and Dr Eleanor Donelan are proud of Port Fairy Medical Clinic.

CHEERS: Dr Judy Carson, Jenny McCarthy, former receptionist of 32 years Jennie Ciavolo.

CHEERS: Dr Judy Carson, Jenny McCarthy, former receptionist of 32 years Jennie Ciavolo.

FAMILY FEEL: Port Fairy Medical Clinic staff in 2015, back row (left to right) Karen Ryan, Dr Judy Carson, Alysha Phillips, Dr Bambie Lee, Ian Fowler, Lisa Graham, Dr Eleanor Donelan, Niamh Sutherland, Dr Andrew Gault, Lyn Wright, Alice Birrell, front (left to right): Jennie Ciavola, Jenny McCarthy, Dr Xiuzhi Pham, Jane Anderton.

FAMILY FEEL: Port Fairy Medical Clinic staff in 2015, back row (left to right) Karen Ryan, Dr Judy Carson, Alysha Phillips, Dr Bambie Lee, Ian Fowler, Lisa Graham, Dr Eleanor Donelan, Niamh Sutherland, Dr Andrew Gault, Lyn Wright, Alice Birrell, front (left to right): Jennie Ciavola, Jenny McCarthy, Dr Xiuzhi Pham, Jane Anderton.

FLASHBACK: Doctor Ian Sutherland from his Port Fairy office in the 1990s. Picture: Richard Crawley

FLASHBACK: Doctor Ian Sutherland from his Port Fairy office in the 1990s. Picture: Richard Crawley

The secret, according to partners Ian Sutherland, Andrew Gault and Eleanor Donelan, is as much about the workplace ambience as it is about the charms of the seaside town itself.

"I hope it's because people like working in the practice, but there's no doubt Port Fairy is an attractive place to live," Dr Gault, whose work in recruiting registrars under the GP training program has helped to build numbers over the last 15 years, said.

His daughter Stephanie Gault is continuing the family tradition as the clinic's current first-year registrar, but he is critical of a new training provision that requires registrars to split their two years of training between two different clinics.

"The registrar often doesn't want to go to another practice and it can be extremely disruptive. A person who stays for two years is more likely to feel committed to the practice," he said.

Dr Donelan is a prime example of the case for single-practice training. From a registrar 10 years ago, she is now a committed partner and permanent resident, completely under the spell of her adopted home.

"Port Fairy beguiles you after a while," she confessed. "It's a beautiful place to live. There's a real beating heart to the place."

There is, she says, everything in Port Fairy that makes up a strong community.

"There's the folk festival and lots of other events throughout the year, two fantastic primary schools, a pool, lots of sporting clubs, a huge element of voluntary work, lots of social micro climates and an eclectic group of artists," she said.

Even her parents have retired to the seaside town from Penshurst where her father practised as a veterinary surgeon.

Dr Donelan said she was struck by the family feel of the practice.

"I love that you have the staff's children walking up here after school and waiting in the tearoom for their parents," she said.

"There is a very low staff turnover."

As Dr Sutherland puts it: "We've hit the sweet spot here. It's a cosy, cohesive place. We're a bit spoilt really."

His wife, Jenny McCarthy, is also a director and works part-time in the business as a medical receptionist.

Read more: It's time to treat the cause of the rural doctor shortage

It wasn't by chance that a young Ian Sutherland chose Port Fairy to hang out his shingle back in July 1989.

He knew he wanted to practise in a place with the same close community spirit that his father Roderick had enjoyed as Natimuk's trusted long-standing GP.

He found it in Port Fairy. As luck would have it, one of the town's three clinics, owned by Dr Ross Dyer, was on the market.

Within a month of starting negotiations, he was the proud owner of a house, along with the Sackville Street clinic.

Before the year was out, the sole practice had become three when husband-and-wife doctors Andrew Gault and Judy Carson took up the invitation to join.

Dr Gault, whose father was also a GP in his family's home town of Bendigo, bought in as a partner.

He clearly remembers their first day at work, November 9, which happened to coincide with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

"Judy and I had finished early and gone for a bike ride when we came across a couple of German tourists," Dr Gault recalled.

"That was in the days before the internet and we were much more isolated.

"We were anxious to tell them that the wall was down, because otherwise they might not have known for weeks."

The wall may have come down, but the foundations of a solid practice had been laid.

"It was a time when technology had yet to transform many aspects of our lives, including practising medicine.

"How things have changed," Dr Sutherland reflected.

"We had one little tiny computer, basically for accounting. Computerisation of medical records was yet to come."

Things were also different at the coalface.

"When we first came here, we were delivering babies, taking X-rays and putting on plasters.

"We don't do as much procedural work now and there are no obstetrics anymore," Dr Sutherland for whom, along with Dr Carson, bringing babies into the world was a regular part of the job, said.

Many of them are now patients with children of their own.

Dr Gault recalled his heavily pregnant wife delivering babies and later bringing their own newborn along to work in a bassinette behind the desk.

It was also, he said, a time of fewer ambulance services and no mica paramedics.

"We saw all the dramas. There were a lot more emergency house calls and more general emergency calls," he said.

Some things, however, haven't changed, according to Dr Sutherland.

"Many people still come in with the same type of problems they have done for probably a hundred years and probably will do in the future," he said.

"Some things about primary medical practice are eternal."

Even house calls are still an option where required for some patients.

As the demands on the clinic steadily outgrew its Sackville Street address, the practice shifted in 2000 to its current purpose-built home conveniently located in Villiers Street adjacent to Moyne Health Services.

With 10 GPs and five practice nurses, the busy clinic serves a catchment area of about 15,000 with patients drawn from as far as Mortlake, Timboon and Bessiebelle.

Since 2004, the practice has also operated four days a week at the former Macarthur hospital, and for almost three years now, a daily clinic has been run at Koroit.

While Port Fairy's permanent population comes in under 4000, summer visitor numbers swell the figure many times over.

Its growing reputation as a popular tourist and retirement destination has changed the clinic's patient demographic over time.

"When I first came here it was a very small and confined community," Dr Sutherland recalled.

"Now it is a bit more of a cosmopolitan community, exposed to the world through international travellers and tourists."

The story Real country practice first appeared on The Standard.

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