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Theodore doctor Bruce Chater prepares to pass on thriving rural medical practice

Bruce Chater is preparing to retire from his role at Theodore Medical Centre. (ABC Capricornia)

Bruce Chater made rural general practice his life's work after he was handed the keys to the Theodore Medical Centre by a locum leaving town 42 years ago.

Dr Chater built a clinic that not only enticed young doctors towards a career in the bush, but kept them, as rural communities nearby struggled to attract and retain GPs.

"I've been working for really 30 years to try and get the evidence base for what works for getting doctors out into rural areas," Dr Chater said.

"Really, it comes down to inspiration.

"You cannot be what you cannot see, so if you can't actually feel it and understand what a good practice it is, and what a nice town that is, then you're not going to be attracted to it and that's half the battle."

Dr Chater, 67, said a family-friendly culture, good infrastructure, a consistent flow of medical students and healthy work-life balance had helped the practice succeed.

Bruce Chater has been the principal doctor at the Theodore Medical Centre for more than 40 years. (ABC Capricornia: Rachel McGhee)

He said he was preparing to pass on the stethoscope, with his legacy to live on through Theodore's new doctor, Elizabeth Clarkson.

"I wanted to make sure that Theodore has got a viable service in the future … she said 'can I be the next Bruce'," Dr Chater said.

"It almost brings tears to my eyes … I'm really proud of Liz, she's got the right stuff."

Dr Clarkson says she loves raising her daughter in a small town. (ABC Capricornia: Rachel McGhee)

Big shoes to fill

Dr Clarkson was born in the rural town of Moura, grew up on the Sunshine Coast and spent a few years in metro hospitals before completing her final two years as a registrar in Theodore.

She became an official GP at the Theodore Medical Centre in 2021.

She is set to take over the clinic from Dr Chater next year.

"They're certainly big shoes to step into but it's exciting," Dr Clarkson said.

"It's also a challenge."

Dr Clarkson lives in Theodore with her husband and one-year-old daughter and has another baby on the way.

She said the welcoming community and the family-oriented culture Dr Chater had built within the medical practice was part of what attracted her to Theodore.

"I'm really happy that I'm raising my daughter … in a really nice small town and it's got a really good community feel," Dr Clarkson said.

"The other thing is keeping the spouses happy … so having good job opportunities in the districts for particularly non-medical, wives, husbands or partners."

Ideal staffing

Dr Chater said Theodore Medical Centre was relatively well-staffed for a rural town, with the equivalent of two-and-a-half full-time doctors.

He said in a perfect world, every town would have at least three doctors to provide the appropriate level of care to the community but also allow for better work-life balance for staff.

"The idea of having one doctor in a town should be dead, it's not a viable thing," he said.

"There should be at least three doctors in every town. And that's cheaper than one locum … so I think that's what it needs to be in the future."

Dr Chater says he's proud to see his passion for rural medicine live on through Dr Clarkson. (ABC Capricornia: Rachel McGhee)

Doctor shortage solutions

Rural Doctors Association of Queensland president Matt Masel said struggles retiring doctors faced finding GPs to take over their clinics were impacting the rural GP shortage.

Dr Masel said part of the solution was to look at places such as Theodore where general practice was thriving.

"There is success and we've been looking and talking about what is bringing those successes … and how do we extend that to those places where there are some struggles," Dr Masel said.

Matt Masel says retiring doctors can struggle to find someone to take their place. (ABC Southern Queensland: David Chen)

Dr Chater is one of the authors of a new study, published in the peer-reviewed British Medical Journal, that shows where a medical student is trained can have a significant impact on where they work as a doctor.

The study found students who did two years of training in the regions were seven times more likely to choose to work in regional Australia, compared to their colleagues who did neither.

Dr Chater said that was where having a healthy work-life balance at the practice was crucial.

"If a student comes out to a place that's only got one doctor and sees that doctor getting burnt out all the time, that's not a good role model," he said.

Pay disparity

Dr Masel said the pay disparity between those who chose a career in general practice and other specialist roles was also a major issue impacting the doctor shortage.

"That can be improved significantly … if we can ensure that rural careers are as attractive as other careers in medicine," he said.

"That means recognising that rural doctors are specialists in their fields, providing broad and complex services under quite challenging situations."

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