Highlights from the Rural GP Association of Scotland Conference 2016

In mid-September, 5th year was just beginning for me. I was looking forward to my final few months of being a medical student, before being spring-boarded into my Foundation Years as a doctor. But something was holding me back from full enthusiasm, and it didn’t take long to figure out… I was suffering from a case of the post-elective blues! My summer spent in rural general practice on the Isle of Tiree was a whirlwind of excitement, and I was missing everything about Scotland – the scenery, the people, the weather, and the copious amount of helicopters. So when an email arrived in my inbox from one of the Tiree GPs, asking if I would be interested in attending the Rural General Practitioner Association Scotland (RGPAS) Conference in November, I didn’t take much persuading!

Annual leave accepted, conference booked – November arrives and I’m on my way to Inverness. I’ve chosen to drive the 900 mile round trip, giving me chance to explore the Highlands, and make the most of my time in the North. With a quick overnight pit-stop to enjoy the sights of Pitlochry, I arrive at Inverness Thursday lunchtime, for what promises to be an interesting few days. Attending events like this as a student can often be daunting, but RGPAS has this in hand as every “trainee” is paired with a GP mentor – the perfect way to meet new people and get a flavour for life as a rural GP. The small, and relatively informal conference has around 80 delegates (students, junior doctors, and established rural GPs), which creates a friendly and inclusive atmosphere.

The first day of presentations is kicked off by Dr Helen Brandstorp, who has come all the way from Tromsø, Norway. She affords us a bit of a geography lesson, and a perspective of rural Norwegian practice, which has many similar challenges to rural Scottish medicine. She talks about developing links between the doctors in Norway and Scotland, and encourages collaborations and friendships amongst remote doctors. Afterwards, we are brought back to Scotland with three talks about transferring rural patients to hospital, encouraging us all to think about the different type of remote emergencies and methods of transport to hospital – including ambulance, helicopter, plane and boat! Subsequently, Dr Catherine Sutherland, Rural GP Fellow, Isle of Arran & MSF volunteer, takes us on a whistle-stop tour of her work in Congo and Pakistan, where she worked with communities where access to healthcare can be very limited.

After an hour’s rest, it is time for the conference dinner at the Craigmonie hotel. Each table hosts three trainees and three GPs – a chance to relax and chat about rural life and make new friends. After dinner, the bar is open: fiddles, whistles and cajons magically appear and an informal music session begins. I consider attempting to join in with my ukulele, but get distracted by the ongoing scintillating conversation.

With still a full day of the conference to go, the following morning is kicked off with a talk about best serving LGBT youth in rural communities and a talk from BASICS Scotland (British Association for Immediate Care, Scotland). We receive a pre-recorded message from Aly Dickson, a founding trustee of Sandpiper Trust, a charity that provides pre-hospital medical bags to Scottish rural areas. I saw one of these bags in use on my elective, and know just how valuable they can be – realising that they are charity funded, and the tragic story behind their inception, is very humbling.

After lunch, there is a special session aimed at introducing students to rural and remote practice, led by the rural GP fellows. This presents the perfect opportunity to ask questions and discuss challenges of living in remote areas. Friday evening arrives, and the main conference draws to a close. For many of the GPs, taking time away to attend the conference means finding a locum and some have to make very long journeys home. It’s been two days of brilliant experiences, and I’ve loved every minute, but for me the most exciting part of the weekend, Saturday morning, has yet to come.

Assuming it doesn’t get called out to an emergency, RGPAS have organised for a small group of us to visit the Inverness Coastguard Helicopter Base. Their aircraft, along with the other various air ambulance helicopters and planes around Scotland, play a key part in rural emergencies, especially on the Scottish Islands, where poor weather and long ferry journeys can cause significant delays in getting someone to a hospital. Duncan, the winchman, gives us an introductory talk about the service, before introducing us to the £26 million-each Sikorsky S92 helicopters.

The crew take us on an intimate tour of the aircraft – showing us the fantastically kitted out medical area, winching equipment, and the state-of-the-art navigation devices. After a thoroughly enjoyable guided tour, my time in Inverness has come to a close. Never have I been to a conference so friendly, so relaxed, and so full of life. RGPAS have to be congratulated on creating a great atmosphere, and fantastic programme for both students and doctors alike.

I’m starting to realise that maybe this was more than a case of “post-elective blues” – and more a kindling of passion for rural general practice. My new-found love of Scotland hasn’t gone away, and the conference has provided me with greater focus, direction and enthusiasm for the next few years. So bring on final exams, the last few months of medical school, and that leap into life as an FY1… but in the meantime, I’ll allow myself a bit of procrastination, in order to plan my next trip north of the border!

Anyone wishing to find out information about attending the conference should visit: ruralgp.com and scotland.ruralgp.com

Catherine Lawrence is a 5th year medical student at HYMS, budding GP and part-time balloon modeller. When not hard at work, she can be found hiking, bouldering or camping with her Cubs or Guides.