Tall tales in Taranaki

Member news
1 November 2016

Like most GPs with a few decades of practice behind them, Steve Finnigan has many a tale to tell.


For this 59-year-old practice owner, two that immediately spring to mind took place within a few kilometres of each other, in the small Taranaki settlement of Tarata.

“I was called out one summer when a kid got airborne on his bike and landed flat on his back in a swamp,” Steve recalls.

Getting to the poor lad required trudging through knee deep swamp water in 30 degree heat. But that wasn’t the worst part.

“Of all the places for the kid to land he was slap bang on top of a slimy decomposing sheep carcass!” adds Steve. “I have never smelt anything so awful in my entire life!” Nursing a broken femur the patient was airlifted to hospital while Steve hosed himself down and headed back to his Inglewood practice.

His other stand-out story from 32 years as an Inglewood GP involved dicing with death and saving a life after being called to an incident on a Tarata hillside.

One farmer had died and another man was convulsing, whilst lying on top of an electric fence. “I thought it was too much of a coincidence for two men to collapse in the same spot within an hour of each other, and realised it must be something to do with the fence,” explains Steve.

“So I grabbed a polar fleece, wrapped it around my hands, pulled the electric fence out from under the second man and threw it down the hill.”

The second man was a neighbour of the deceased who had been helping him complete an electric fencing job. The tragedy struck when the fence touched an overhead powerline while being lifted into position.

Extreme cases aside, Steve Finnigan loves the continuity of care afforded by working in a small town and practice. Steve knows most of his patients very well. He has been treating many of them since 1984 when he and wife Liz moved to Inglewood following training.

“I really love working in a small community,” says Steve, who juggles GP life with a long list of hobbies including flying radio-controlled aeroplanes, mountain climbing and biking. He ran his first (and last, he tells me) marathon earlier this year.

“I feel privileged and humbled by the way that families take you in as part of their wider whanau,” he says.

“Patients can become friends and that is a lovely thing. But at the same time that familiarity can present challenges and you have to wear the right hat at the right time.”

One challenge arising from this familiarity is being approached by patients in Inglewood’s supermarket. Occasionally people will want to discuss their medical conditions while Steve is picking up a few bits and pieces for dinner.

“I will always speak to them but I’ll never quite stop walking,” Steve says, demonstrating admirable diplomacy. “And I’ll usually finish the conversation by suggesting they come to discuss their issue in more detail - when I’m at work.”

Steve reckons some myth busting is in order around the life of GPs in rural New Zealand. “There’s a perception about rural practice that we are incredibly isolated and work extremely long hours,” he tells me.

“I think some of that relates to days gone by. In my experience it’s nowhere near as tough as it used to be. For 25 years I did a one in three week roster on 24/7. But that has basically gone now. On call hours are extremely light these days.” But Steve certainly puts the hours in with nine half-day sessions per week.

As the College prepares to launch its Practice Ownership Guide, Steve highlights simplicity as the main benefit of owning a practice. It was the only option available to him back in 1984 when he started out in Inglewood but he knows that a partnership or other model wouldn’t have worked for him. “Having seen other practices involved in partnerships it can just get too complicated for my liking. Some don’t want to work full time, some work faster than others, and how do you distribute income in an equitable way? I’m glad I don’t have to worry about that.

“I would definitely recommend sole practice ownership. It has certainly worked well for me. There’s obviously a financial outlay to consider but you are your own boss, it is completely down to you and you are rewarded for your efforts.”

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