Meet a Member - Dr Wendy Burton

Dr Wendy Burton’s parents, the only GPs in Cooroy, threatened to slit the throat of the first one of their children if they ever took up medicine. Yet, here she is, 35 years into her general practice career with “no scars”.

Her parents moved to Cooroy in 1960, when there were GPs in Pomona, Kenilworth and Eumundi, and then they all left. So for many years in the 1960s they were on call 24/7, 365 days a year.

“They were covering quite a large geographic area and mum was very busy having us and working. It's a lot of work, adding practice ownership to full time GP consulting and a lot of responsibility. So long after the consulting stopped, mum would be working on the books and the business and such,” Dr Burton said.  

“I couldn't ever do what my parents did. I carried a pager during my GP training and I became quite distressed, it just triggered in me the sense from my childhood that you could never disconnect from the patients. So that was not part of my own medical journey. I respect my colleagues who do on-call work, but I just couldn't do it myself, having grown up thinking that the patients were more important than we were.”

Dr Burton instead grew up thinking that she would become a teacher or a motorcycle police officer, despite not knowing any police officers, nor having any motorcycle police in Cooroy. Teaching has been a huge part of her life though, just not as she thought it would be.

“I love educating, so the teacher in me became realised. I have no formal educational qualifications, but my brain works in interesting ways.

“I really believe peers teaching peers is a better way. Our specialist colleagues are so valued, so important and we need their knowledge, but too often they tell us what they want us to know, which isn't necessarily what we want to know or what we need to know. Taking myriad guidelines and operationalising them, that's my thing,” she said.

Dr Burton said sharing paperwork short cuts, checklists, work procedures and videos between colleagues was a great way to save time and share learnings. She created the website Maternity-Matters to do just that, also using this site to link resources for patients before, during and after pregnancy.

“Education by itself isn't enough to connect the sectors, you need to identify the communication channels and build relationships, that's the truly valuable part.

“Obviously, you don't always need to refer people, but you might need specialist advice. There's been some great innovations in terms of, for example, being able to email a question to a physician at Mater Public about general medical matters. Once you have the answer back it can be the difference between needing to do a referral, with patients waiting sometimes months or years to be seen to answer one or two questions vs having those questions answered via email.

“Sometimes the answer is, sorry, you'll need to refer. But sometimes it's, try X and Y and Z. By the time I've sent that letter, I have of course already checked online for guidelines, flow charts, health pathways and things like that, but they don't always answer the specific question about my one patient,” she said.

In late 2019, Dr Burton launched a second website, GPs-Can, which went from showcasing the breadth and depth of general practice, to being a resource centre when COVID hit, changes were happening sometimes by the hour and GPs had to pivot quickly.

After 19 years, she recently stepped down as Chair and facilitator of the Mater Mothers Hospital Shared Antenatal Care Alignment, a GP education, communication and relationship building program.

I passionately believe that we could change the health outcomes of the entire nation, indeed the world, if we did preconception, early pregnancy, pregnancy, and early childhood better. If all that we ever did was talk to couples who are planning a pregnancy about smoking, nutrition, alcohol, and physical activity, we would reset health outcomes, not just for here and now, but for generations. The epigenetics, the flow on effects of the environment in the womb, are so important.

“The majority of Australians see a GP once a year or more, and so we have this unique position within our healthcare system to initiate a conversation or respond to a question. Having GPs empowered, informed and with fit-for purpose resources, allows us to do a better job.

“Most of my practice is diabetes, hypertension, anxiety, depression, immunisation, well baby checks, skin checks, rashes, coughs and colds, the usual stuff. Antenatal care is the minority of my practice, most women have private obstetric or public midwifery care, but for those who choose to have GP shared care with me, it's so much fun. It's the most organic way to grow your practice. You get new people!

“I'm helping on the journey. If you know people before they fall pregnant or before they've had kids, you have this more rounded view of who they are as an individual. I find it really helps me during the difficult early parenting years because let's face it, it's hard work being a parent.

“In this day and age, we're often isolated, separated from community or family. If I, as a general practitioner, can provide intergenerational care, with conversations measured in decades, having known somebody ideally even before they fall pregnant, that really helps me to provide better whole-of-person care.

“The research supports that - continuity of general practice care helps to reduce low birth weight and perinatal mortalities.

“With every fibre of my being, I believe in relationship-based longitudinal care where continuity is measured in decades and generations. I know my people.”

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