Meet the Fellows: Dr Peter Smith

FRACGP, Class of '04

Dr Peter Smith had a whole different life before medicine.

He started his study of medicine at the age of 40, having been a self-employed contractor for 20 years doing manual tasks like gardening, orchard work and cleaning.

“Whatever was available, I was doing it,” Peter said.

“It was great being my own boss, but it was always physical work. When it started to get more difficult to continue doing physical work I knew it was time to make a change.

“I remember at one point I realised that I had been mowing the same lawn for 14 years and thought to myself, ‘what have I achieved?’,”

Peter started looking into careers that wouldn’t be so stressful on the body and decided on general practice at the encouragement of his local rural GP.

He faced a raft of difficulties on his journey to becoming a GP, needing to go back to university as a mature-aged student after being out of school for 20 years.

After three years of applying for medicine, he was accepted and started studying for his MBBS at UWA.

“I didn’t think it was ever going to happen, but my GP supported me all the way,” he said.

Peter joined the GP program with what was then called WACRRM in his second year of studies with the intent to go rural.

“I was committed to rural practice from the onset, having spent many years in the country,” he said.

“Now, every day involves different challenges and situations which is really stimulating and provides job satisfaction.

“It’s not as if you’re repeating the thing every day; every week there are very different scenarios.”

Peter was open to where he wanted to practise, so after talking to his wife and three children while studying, he ended up in Karratha.

“After about three years of training terms in hospitals in Perth, I went up to Karratha in a shared role with the Nickol Bay hospital and Karratha Medical Centre, staying there for seven years,” he said.

“My children finished their high school there, and when they went to university we moved back to Perth. I kept working rurally at Carnarvon and then Narrogin where I still am now.

“In those days there were no specialist colleagues or backup in Karratha, meaning you had to send people out, and it’s the same in Narrogin.

“You have to deal with everything – I do a lot of emergency work and obstetrics, which is what we call procedural work.

“You don’t have that in metro, because there are tertiary hospitals within half an hour. We have to hold on to patients when they are unwell and keep them stable until they’re able to fly out with the RFDS or transfer by ambulance with St John Ambulance.”

Peter said that there was an expectation that rural doctors become part of their community.

“I know when I first went to Narrogin they asked me how long I was staying there,” he said.

“In the old days, doctors were often in country towns for up to 50 years.

“That continuity of care was vital and involved cradle-to-grave care with everything in between.”

In his time as a GP, Peter has delivered babies, been involved in the care of people in their last days of life and served in the emergency department for his community.

“The value is that you’re part of the whole community and they know and respect you for what you do.”

Peter said that often challenging moments are when they need to call in a team in the middle of the night to help with a difficult birth.

“We’re all tired, we’ve been asleep for a couple of hours before being woken up and we all have to rally together to help with the delivery of this baby,” he said.

“But after the successful delivery, there’s that elation and you can’t just go back to bed. You realise that you and the rest of the team have done something special despite difficulties.

“It’s not a solo effort and you do really get a buzz assisting in bringing a new life into this world.”

Peter loves when a patient brings their five or six-year-old child in and says, “you delivered them as a baby”, to him.

“You realise how much they’ve grown in the past five years, and you continue to see them growing up,” he said.

“That’s one of the benefits in being in rural general practice. You’re considered part of the family.”

Peter’s words of advice to junior doctors are that general practice should be their first choice, even if they eventually move to a specialisation.

“You’ll be a better specialist if you have that background in general practice,” he said.

He said that GPs also had an important role in every community.

“As a generalist, we are specialists in family life and family health,” he said.

“A good GP will keep people out of hospitals, and we should be encouraging more people to take it on as a career choice.

“If you have a good GP, you’re going to be better looked after than if you just have a slew of specialists. GPs care for families, using specialist colleagues as needed.”