Alex McLeod is a man who loves the outdoors and he’s managed to achieve the winning combination that many aspire to: his work as a rural doctor allows him and his family to live and play in some of New Zealand’s most beautiful locations.
His training and work has taken him all around the country, but when we caught up with him, he was based at Blenheim Hospital. Here’s Alex’s story:
What led you to rural medicine?
I grew up in the Wairarapa, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that preordained my decision to become a rural doctor.
In fact, when I was 11 or 12 my family moved overseas and we spent a few years living in large towns in the UK and Australia. When we got back to New Zealand, I went to Dunedin to study medicine, but I didn’t do the Rural Medical Immersion Programme as I wasn’t 100 percent sure what my specialty was going to be – or where I wanted to work.
When I was doing my medical degree I did hospital runs in Whanganui, Hawkes Bay and Palmerston North, and after graduating I headed to Northland. I think it these experiences cemented my interest in staying rural. I absolutely loved the lifestyle up North – I was able to fish, surf and dive. The work was really rewarding too – I was doing lots of junior doctor rotations and getting a broad range of experience with a fairly diverse, and often high-needs, population.
It was when I was working in Whangarei that I first became interested in general practice and the Division of Rural Hospital Medicine’s training programme. This combination really grabbed me – the classic mix of general practice and rural hospital medicine just felt like the right fit. This led me to a job in Dargaville, where I was able to embark on my rural practice journey.
Tell us about your training
Well I’ve had lots of different experiences on my dual Fellowship journey. One thing that helped me, was the constant reminder from my trainers to keep an open mind about the local population and its health needs. It’s true, the demographics of different communities definitely plays a part in the type of conditions you see and treat.
My time in Northland was pretty incredible – it’s just so remote. I was based at Whangarei Hospital, but looked after patients from as far away as Dargaville, Kaitaia, Hokianga and the Bay of Islands. As part of the hospital’s ICU, we’d sometimes have to helicopter to remote locations to collect patients needing specialist or intensive care treatment. It was an amazing experience.
I got a lot out of working up north, but I wanted to keep expanding my skills, so in 2016 my wife and I made the move to the South Island. We headed to Clyde so I could do a six month stint at Dunstan Hospital.
The contrast in the temperature and the scenery was a big of a shock to start with – we went from the winterless north to the snow! It was incredible though – and we realised we hadn’t really made the most of living in Otago when we were uni students. We decided to make up for that, and got ourselves into tramping, skiing and biking.
My next placement was in Wanaka – another beautiful spot – and we really got involved with the local community here. That’s one of the great things about rural medicine, you get to know your patients and you become a local. The work was varied and interesting – a good mix of acute care, with afterhours and emergency work – as well as the usual general practice work.
I gained my GP Fellowship while working in Wanaka, but still needed one more year in a rural hospital to get the DRHM Fellowship – which is why we made the move to Blenheim last year.
What appeals to you about rural medicine?
The breadth of the scope of practice is a major factor. There are challenges that come with this of course – maintaining your competency and confidence takes work, but it’s varied, interesting and satisfying.
I can’t see myself working in an urban centre now that I’ve experienced a rural lifestyle. There’s something special about working with a small team – everyone knows each other, they know your strengths and skills, and they support each other.
Sustainability, being active and enjoying the outdoors are important considerations for me now that we have a young family. I’ve been lucky enough to live and work in some beautiful parts of New Zealand. I still don’t know where we’ll eventually settle, but I’m looking forward to the future, whatever it brings.