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Lesley Forster | Insights from Industry Leaders

Lesley Forster - Charles Sturt University

Lesley Forster | Insights from Industry Leaders

Dean of Rural Medicine at Charles Sturt University

Professor Lesley Forster is the Dean of Rural Medicine at Charles Sturt University

Lesley recently sat down with Ccentric consultant, Pam Lubrainschik to discuss her career. Some of the questions they discussed include:

  • What made you decide to study medicine?
  • What attracted you to academia, and then rural medicine?
  • What do you believe are the opportunities of creating a brand new rural medical school in the area; how has COVID affected this?
  • How have you staffed the new school
  • Has digital health been a part of the development of the school and education program?
  • Do you think the rollout of telehealth will help provide better healthcare to the rural community and the indigenous communities?
  • How has your experience been with Ccentric?
  • What were the benefits of working with an executive recruiter to secure this opportunity?
  • What is your advice for aspiring leaders?

What made you decide to study medicine?

I wanted to be a doctor from when I was seven years old, at that stage I knew that I was going to go to university, but I didn’t know what I was going to be. My father was an architect, and my mother was a journalist, and I didn’t want to do either of those to compete. The only other professionals I knew were a doctor and a dentist and I certainly wasn’t brave enough to be a dentist. But as I got older and went through high school, there was an illness in the family, and I saw hospitals and doctors and thought how much they helped and wanted to be like them.

What attracted you to academia, and then rural medicine?

It wasn’t quite that straightforward; in my early parts of my career, I did some work in the country and saw the needs there. I worked with the Flying Doctor Service for a while and that was an amazing experience, seeing the lack of resources that rural people had. I worked in a series of roles in regional and rural Australia. But then I went back into administration through hospitals and health system for many years. I then had the University of New South Wales approached me to help set up a new curriculum they were developing. I never knew why they asked me, but they did and I got interested. Then a position arose which involved experience in the country and experience of academia and put it together and I went from there and then got hooked on rural medical education.

What do you believe are the opportunities of creating a brand new rural medical school in the area; how has COVID affected this?

It’s interesting in that I make no secret of the fact, that in my previous job I was certainly educating medical students in the country and we were doing it pretty well. We set up a very good rural clinical school and to be honest, I fought against Charles Sturt setting up a rural medical school because I said we can do it the way we are, so why would we start a new medical school where nobody’s done anything before. Having changed, I can now see that I was wrong and that in fact, a rural university with a rural medical school is very different from a metropolitan university with a rural clinical school. In fact, some of the doctors in the towns where I used to be involved with the university, they used to say that you need to be a rural university.

The opportunities are that 100 percent of rural students have come here. It means that some of them are from the local area so they can stay, have their families and their friends and maintain those supports. But for other students, they want to be rural doctors. They want to come and work and study in a rural place. It costs them a lot less from accommodation and everything else. Most families can’t afford to send their children off for a five- or six-year programme in a metropolitan city. Here it’s much less expensive, but it’s also rurally focused. The way we’ve set up our programme is that it is built on the experience of other things, but it’s all designed to encourage students to come in from a rural place and learn in a rural place, develop and maintain relationships in a rural place, and hopefully then aspire to become a doctorate in that area. With all of our clinical placements, we’re doing a lot of attachments in small towns to general practises in small towns, with the idea that students go back each year and build up their links with those communities so that by the end of five years they’ve really associated into that region and feel they belong. Hopefully, in some cases it’s actually where they come from. We are trying to give our students the opportunity to go home to do their clinical placements. I think that’s pretty exciting, which is something we could never achieve before, so that’s a huge opportunity. Everybody at this university is rurally focussed so you don’t have to explain why it’s important or even that it is important, it’s just accepted and everybody wants to help, which is wonderful as a place to work.

As far as covid’s concerned, it was a very interesting experience in that I was actually overseas when it hit. I was pretty much the only employee, I was floating somewhere off South America, not being allowed to land. We had gone down to Antarctica and they wouldn’t let us land back in Chile, Santiago. They were firing guns from the shore at our ship. So it was quite exciting. We were very lucky that eventually that the Falkland Islands let us land and we got straight off the ship and onto a plane and straight home. But then, of course, we had to work from home for a year. So I was a long way from here and basically, we established a medical school by remotely, which was quite exciting.

How have you staffed the new school?

Some of the staff have come with me, which would be almost inevitable you would think. I’ve managed to attract some of my former colleagues to come and join us. Others we’ve managed to attract some new doctors to town, which I think has been due to the opportunity to come and work at the university. Others are the local doctors who have been wonderful and who’ve agreed to come and teach with us because they believe in teaching all kids in a rural place. A lot of the doctors are here in Orange and some in Bathurst and actually coming up in communities all over New South Wales have basically volunteered their services to come and work with us, take our students and teach them, which is a great model for medical education. It’s been very special, been a lot of work for all of us. But I think we all get a real buzz out of belonging here. To have the opportunity to set up a school which from our experience, there are a lot of people here with experience, we really think it is the best way of teaching and getting in and doing the things that we’re doing is really pretty exciting and very rewarding.

Has digital health been a part of the development of the school and education program?

I think digital health is very important and obviously, we’re in the country, so we’re long distances from places. We have already discussed with the LHD the possibility of our students being attached to the telehealth unit and they’re very happy for us to do that. I think it’s really important that doctors know how to work telehealth, it’s not as simple as sitting in front of your computer. We need them to learn those things. But there’s an awful lot of other digital technology that can help health and as there are particular problems in the rural sector. So we will be making that a research focus, as well as a teaching focus. There’s a lot of opportunities.

Do you think the rollout of telehealth will help provide better healthcare to the rural community and the indigenous communities?

I sincerely think it contributes, but I don’t know that having your only source of medical care on a computer is ideal. But as a supplement to having good medical care, even if it’s at a distance I think it’s really important. I think it has a huge part to play in the future of medical care, but it doesn’t replace the doctors that are so badly needed in the rural areas.

How has your experience been with Ccentric and what were the benefits of working with an executive recruiter to secure this opportunity?

Well, the truth of the matter is that I was sitting very comfortably in my old job and it never occurred to me to actually think of changing until you contacted me and twisted my arm, I would never have done it and never thought of it. To be honest, it’s been wonderful. I guess for me that’s the benefit, you’ve given me an opportunity that I never thought of. It was a pretty painless way of doing it, but it’s now saying we’ve got this medical school so not just me coming, but the other people who come as a result of me as a roll-on effect. I like to think that it’s been a good thing on both sides.

That is what I think is quite lovely. This medical school was long and hard-fought-for by the community here in Orange in the central west. They do take a huge interest in it. The local politicians, the local community members, they’re wonderful about their involvement with the school and on any support, they can give us. Same in other rural communities across New South Wales. That personal involvement as well as Ccentric, has made it a lovely experience and contributed to its success. I don’t think there’s any doubt, at least at this stage that it is a success. I think that’s all very valuable.

What is your advice for aspiring leaders?

What I always say to my students, I said to them on their first day, and I repeat to them, but I think it applies equally to other disciplines or professions. You can’t look after patients if you don’t look after yourself. You really need to not just study and work, you need to build up your personal relationships, you need to have family and friends that you can rely on and you need to have other interests. You need to go and play sports, join a team somewhere, do whatever appeals to you. But you need to look after your own well-being. If you’re in trouble, you need to seek help. Then on top of that, I think you don’t always go looking for opportunities, but sometimes opportunities hit you in the face, and when they do, you have to be prepared to take them. That’s how we’ve built this medical school in many ways. We’ve taken opportunities where otherwise people might just have ignored them and gone on their own way. You have to be prepared to seize an opportunity and go with it and see what you can make of it. It can be a lot of fun as well as very worthwhile, and a lot of work sometimes.

I think I’m very lucky, but it seems to be the harder I work, the luckier I get. If you really enjoy what you’re doing, you don’t realise that you’re working hard.

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