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Doctors returning to high school



A publicly funded program aims to improve access to primary care for students. A participating GP talks to newsGP about the experience.

Dr Natalie Barton (left), alongside fellow ‘doctors in secondary schools’ Beck, who works as a nurse on the Croydon campus.

Dr Natalie Barton wasn’t sure what to expect when she signed up for the ‘Doctors in Secondary Schools’ program in Victoria last year.

The GP from outer-east Melbourne admits to feeling nervous when she started taking part in the state government-funded initiative to improve access to primary care in secondary school areas considered to be the most needy.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect,” said Dr Barton newsGP.

“I like young people and I like working with young people, so I thought I’d give it a try.

“As for my own professional skills, I was a bit afraid that I couldn’t do a great job.”

Dr Barton discovered the program while working at headspace and eventually took the job at Croydon Community School through the Eastern Melbourne Primary Health Network, working one day a week to help give students better access to primary care.

Working alongside a nurse practitioner, Dr Barton says initially she wasn’t even convinced that many students would show up at the clinic.

She didn’t need to worry.

“It was pretty busy right away,” she recalls.

“And I think for us we were lucky because the school and the welfare team already had a really good relationship with the students there, so the students already trusted them.

“And so they were able to transfer that to us, I guess.”
Immediately, Dr. Barton sensed that the children were receiving care that they would otherwise have found more difficult to receive.

“It’s really satisfying because for a lot of these young people it gives them a starting point. I guess it’s a safe space to access care,” she said.

“I think for a lot of the kids that we see, maybe it’s outside of school that it’s harder for them to do that.”

As for concerns about his professional skills? Again, Dr. Barton says she needn’t have worried. She found the work rewarding early on with a supportive wellness team, and says there are other opportunities for GPs to get involved if they seek them out.

“It’s great on a professional level because you feel you can make a difference for young people who are quite vulnerable,” she said.

‘And support through the program at the ongoing CME [continuing medical education] – there are plenty of options to improve your skills if you wish, especially when it comes to mental health and sexual health.

Unsurprisingly, Dr. Barton says mental health presentations are most prevalent at the school clinic, but she has also provided care on a range of issues, from sexual and reproductive health to musculoskeletal conditions.

The service is free for students, with the state government funding GPs and nurses. Dr. Barton says the arrangement allowed him to participate without having to sacrifice income from his regular clinical work.

Part of the satisfaction she gets comes from the more educational part of the job – rightly so perhaps, given the setting.

“It allowed us to help some young people who were quite vulnerable, who didn’t have great access to health services, or who weren’t sure how to start accessing health services,” Dr Barton said.

“It allowed us to develop relationships with them and help them navigate the healthcare system more broadly, which has been really good.

“And there’s also a lot of opportunity to introduce preventative health stuff, which is also great.”

But above all, how did she find the patients?

Dr. Barton says they expanded her vocabulary and she has nothing but good things to say about the role.

“It’s really satisfying to get to know them and to be able to help them sort things out,” she said.

‘They’re also really lovely, great to work with. They are fun and they are resilient and I enjoy their company.

“It’s actually a lot better than I expected.”

The school where Dr. Barton works is one of about 100 high schools across the state currently participating in the program, which is run by Primary Health Networks.

Eastern Melbourne PHN has a limited number of vacancies for the Secondary School Physician Program – see the EMPHN website for more details.

Further information on the program is also available via the Victorian Government website.

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