Just what doctors ordered

THE success of the Derwent Valley Medical Centre, which took another key expansion step last week, reflects a fresh approach to medical practice in Tasmania. “We’re swimming against the tide,” says Dr Lester Pepingco, the dynamic young medico running the Burnett Street clinic. “But it works for us.”

The figures back him up. The medical centre has expanded from four regular doctors to 14 in the recent past. And last week, it opened two new wings, each honouring medical pioneers in the Valley. There’s more to come.

“We’re now about 85 per cent of the way there,” says Dr Pepingco, with the final phase of development to begin next year. The wings just opened last week include one named for Dr Annette Douglas, whose work in primary healthcare was core to the Derwent Valley – and six other regional centres around Tasmania. The second wing is named for Dr Ralph Peters, who at his retirement in New Norfolk two years ago was noteworthy, even famous. Dr Peters – then 92 – was the oldest practicing doctor in Australia.

“More than that,” says Dr Pepingco, “Ralph had delivered more babies here in the Derwent Valley than anybody. That was the kind of impact he had on the lives, and life, of this place.” Dr Pepingco says this with genuine pride, underlining his decision to honour the two medical pioneers. “We’ve created the Great Eastern Egret Foundation to underwrite scholarships in recognition of these two,” he says.

“When people are asked about it – and they will be – they’ll be able to talk about the work of Ralph Peters and Annette Douglas.”

The practice is also seeking out more staffing additions to the Burnett Street practice by way of a mentorship program. Dr Pepingco says that program has managed to attract doctors who have already gained recognition from their peers and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners.

Attracting doctors into rural and regional practice is difficult in Tasmania, acknowledged by the Australian Medical Association. “There are a lot of small communities that would love to have their own GP,” AMA Tasmania President Dr Helen McArdle told the ABC. “But trying to attract them and retain them is very difficult.”

As he says, Dr Pepingco’s practice is swimming against that tide. Through his own pioneering work at the practice, the addition of medical staff has enabled patient appointments to increase by more than 18,000 a year. In his judgment, medical practices across the state are becoming more corporatised. “Older practitioners are retiring and selling out to large medical companies, not to other doctors. Smaller communities are unattractive to those bigger concerns. Our stakeholders are the doctors, the staff and the community,” he says.

“We serve this valley as a genuinely local business, locally owned,” says Dr Pepingco, who studied medicine at the University of Sydney and graduated with honours. While at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, he was awarded Intern Doctor of The Year, and in 2013 was honoured for research “most likely to advance and influence clinical practice and improve the health of Australians.”

As to the motivation for his commitment to, and optimism about, the Derwent Valley, he says simply: “I love this community and this Valley.”