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Chasing a clear career path away from the lab

Dr Jane Hill is Wagga's only permanent medical oncologist, though a pretty much permanent vacancy exists for another.

Backed by three Sydney specialists who each fly in for a day or two a fortnight, she is otherwise the single port of call for the chemotherapy needs of the city of 60,000 and the wider catchment of about 300,000.

''Before I moved here in 1996 there was no medical oncologist outside Newcastle, Wollongong and Sydney,'' she says.

The standard Sydney career path - with its emphasis on extra academic credentials to get a toehold in a teaching hospital - left Hill cold.

''My interest is just in the clinical side,'' she says. ''I didn't want to get a PhD and spend time in a lab just to get a position in Sydney.''

Her GP husband was on-side, preferring the broader scope of country medicine to city patients who just wanted a referral or script.


Their daughter has recently transferred to a boarding school in Sydney - ''which we had hoped not to do'', Hill says. ''But as much as we've chosen to live regionally, we would like our kids to experience both the regional and city life.''

Education for children and work for partners are the biggest determinants in whether a doctor will make the move from a big city to a regional centre, says Dr Nick Stephenson, senior radiologist at I-Med Regional Imaging Riverina and chairman of Wagga's regional medical specialist recruitment and retention committee.

He says he was ''heartbroken'' when his own daughter left for the city in year 10.

The positives are a clearer career path and more challenging practice. ''The professional opportunities are amazing,'' he says. ''[Doctors] don't have to deal with some doyen who's five or six years ahead of them.''

The country is increasingly an unknown quantity to metropolitan medics, Stephenson - who grew up in Bathurst and studied at Sydney University - says. ''Where in the past a lot of people had cousins in the country and used to come on their holidays, now they go to Fiji.''

The committee, which employs a full-time staff member to sell the benefits of the Riverina to sceptical city types, has had considerable success - 76 specialist doctors live full-time in the community, three times the number seven years ago.

But the city is still nowhere near capacity. Stephenson says it could take ''at least double what we've got now. We could double and provide a much better service and everyone would still have work''.

Stephenson counsels doctors who hate to stray beyond their comfort zone to ''stick to the coast''. ''To my mind it's harder to be a quality generalist than a sub-specialist,'' he says. ''Not everyone can handle it.''