Beyond City Limits: Darwin

17 October 2022

In September 2022, we visted Darwin to talk to specialist anaesthetists, trainees, and medical students about living and working in Australia's Top End.

Attracting and retaining anaesthetists to work and live in Australian rural and regional areas is challenging. The federal health department recognises this and funds specialist registrar positions through specialist medical colleges, including ANZCA, under the Specialist Training Program. Additional training positions are also funded through the program’s Integrated Rural Training Pipeline (IRTP) initiative.

Have you considered an anaesthesia career in Darwin? Hear from Dr Brian Spain, Dr Edith Waugh, Dr Nelly Kumta, Thilini Pandithage, Hayley Kelly, Melissa Rosas and Ben Forsyth about living and working in the Top End.
Royal Darwin Hospital’s department of anaesthesia is headed by Dr Brian Spain who is also the co-director of surgery and critical care at the hospital. Dr Spain and his wife Jenny, a GP, moved to Darwin in the late 1990s from Melbourne via Perth and raised their family in the territory.

Dr Spain is a popular advocate for the specialty and committed mentor to anaesthesia trainees and fellows working in Australia’s Top End. He has played a key role in encouraging the development of South Australian and Northern Territory training opportunities for the specialty through the Australian Commonwealth-funded STP and the IRTP initiative.

On the day we visited, Dr Spain and his team, including deputy director Dr Sam Rigg, the department had just wrapped its weekly morning meeting. Dr Spain encourages fellows and trainees to attend the weekly Tuesday meeting if they can as it features a clinician from the hospital or department speaking on topics such as safety and quality in anaesthesia or perioperative care.

Dr Brian Spain. Photo: Carolyn Jones

Dr Spain knows that attracting and retaining anaesthetists to work and live in Australian rural and regional areas is challenging. The federal health department recognises this and funds specialist registrar positions through specialist medical colleges including ANZCA under the STP. Additional training positions are also funded through the program’s IRTP initiative.

For first year anaesthesia trainees Dr Nilesh “Nelly” Kumta and Dr Krushna Patel (below) and working in Darwin has not only given them a broad scope of clinical practice opportunities but has placed them at the heart of stunning landscapes with tens of thousands of years of First Nations history and culture. “One of the great aspects of working here in Darwin is that you are exposed to such a variety of work that you might not have the chance to do at other training sites,’’ Dr Patel explains minutes after leaving theatre where she was part of the medical team for a caesarean birth of twins.

Trainees Dr Nilesh Kumta and Dr Krushna Patel taking a well-earned coffee break. Photo: Siobhan Spence

“While I’ve worked on obstetrics cases this morning I’ve also had some ‘plastics’ cases to remove skin cancers and a three-hour liver resection. There’s a real ‘can do’ attitude here and we’re all supervised by senior consultants. Darwin offers something very unique,” she says.

“There is such a diverse demographic here. The consultants and specialists are very highly skilled so as a young trainee you feel very supported. It is very hands on. We help patients get through their operation in a safe way. Many of the patients are very high risk so you get to learn things quickly and know what resources you can draw on. For example you might have to facilitate a quick dialysis for a patient before their operation so you soon learn how to organise this and make sure the patient gets through their operation safely. The breadth of different specialties that you’re exposed to is seamless. It’s very rewarding and does have its own challenges but it’s so satisfying when you get a patient through their surgery.”

Dr Cauldwell and Dr Kumta agree. “We have more independent practice here unlike other places where there is a lot less autonomy in the early stages of training. The team here are very supportive,” Dr Cauldwell says. Dr Kumta says 70 per cent of the hospital’s patients are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Many have complex medical conditions such as type 2 diabetes, ischaemic heart disease and rheumatic heart disease.

“On any one day I will see a variety of patients,” he explains.“I could see a five-month-old baby followed by a 20-year-old and then a 75-year-old with end stage renal failure. Many patients require complex treatment and our role is to ensure they get through their operations safely.”

Dr Spain has worked closely with ANZCA’s SA/NT Regional Committee to secure more funded anaesthesia training opportunities in Darwin and Alice Springs. His department manages 14 registrars and 24.5 full-time equivalent consultant positions that are filled by 30 anaesthetists.

Specialist anaesthetist Dr Edith Waugh has lived and worked in Darwin for over a decade and works closely with the hospital’s Aboriginal Service Support Unit and its Aboriginal liaison officers. With the permission of Aranda man Ronald Palmer and his wife Priscilla, we were able to meet and chat with him as he discussed his acute pain management with Dr Waugh.

Anaesthetist Dr Edith Waugh with patient Ronald Palmer and his wife Priscilla. Photo: Nicholas Walton-HealeyAnaesthetist Dr Edith Waugh with patient Ronald Palmer and his wife Priscilla. Photo: Nicholas Walton-Healey

Mr Palmer explained to us how he was flown to Royal Darwin Hospital for treatment from his remote, Katherine region community with chest trauma. With optimised pain control and a well-secured chest drain with an under-water seal drain attached to his wheelchair, he was able to leave his hospital room and sit outside in one of the hospital courtyards. Mr Palmer’s acute pain management involved understanding the combination of traditional bush medicine, the western health care system’s available analgesia, and importantly, the healing environment. The break from the air-conditioned ward to the warmer courtyard and spending time with family were highly valued by Mr Palmer.

“The hospital’s perioperative medicine and pain management (POPM) service has been managing Ronald’s comfort while also respecting his cultural needs,” Dr Waugh explains. "Sharing knowledge about what health and wellbeing outcomes First Nations people value is a foundation of culturally sensitive care. Interpreters and Aboriginal liaison officers assist with safe intercultural communication and mediation in the local health service. This leads to not only a better patient experience but also to the incredible privilege of working in this culturally diverse environment of the Top End.”

While the main Royal Darwin Hospital’s Casuarina campus has a 24-hour emergency department the opening of the hospital’s Palmerston campus in August 2018 has been used largely for day and minor surgery cases though some overnight surgical beds will soon be available to help deal with the backlog of elective surgery patients exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In collaboration with Alice Springs Hospital we have developed an NT independent training program with support from major hospitals in Adelaide such as Flinders Medical Centre and the Women’s and Children’s Hospital to provide cardiac training and paediatric training. This means we can now provide the whole anaesthesia training program in the NT and encourage more junior doctors to come here,” Dr Spain explains.

“We can now provide three years of anaesthesia training in Darwin so junior doctors can get into the Darwin lifestyle and establish their lives up here. This is a huge advance for us and Royal Darwin Hospital. We’re hoping that this will ultimately mean that we can provide three years of training at Royal Darwin and one year in Alice Springs. There has been strong support from the SA/NT Regional Committee and the STP program for this initiative.”

The ANZCA STP program currently enables Royal Darwin to fund a provisional fellow in perioperative medicine, a registrar level trainee for up to three years and an IRTP position. Two additional roles, including an obstetric fellowship position, are on the STP reserve list.

“There are great learning opportunities even in the pre-vocational space for interns and junior residents,” Dr Spain says. “There is amazing diversity, all the medical specialties are represented with complex intensive care and there’s also an excellent infectious diseases department.

“Darwin is a really interesting place to practice anaesthesia, it’s a great young department with lots of enthusiastic specialists and a backdrop of a fantastic place to live. It’s a small city but there is a lot of great stuff to do outside of work.

“Darwin really is an incredible place. You get to work in Australia’s most isolated tertiary hospital that caters to complex health needs and live in one of the most amazing places on earth.”

This story originally appeared in the spring 2022 edition of the ANZCA Bulletin.

Last updated 11:53 28.03.2024