A school visit to the University of Auckland’s medical school planted the seed of medical graduate Kate Dunstall’s passion for rural medicine.
Dunstall, who grew up and went to school in Waihi, graduated on December 14 with a medical degree (MBChB).
“When I was a Year 10 student, we had the opportunity to come to Auckland. We did some suturing with pig skin and went into Whakaaro Pai and saw some specimens in jars.
“We had these students talking to us and now I realise they were from Grassroots.
“I think that was the reason I want to do medicine.”
Dunstall said that, in some ways, she has come full circle, having had leadership roles in the Grassroots Rural Health Club for the past four years.
Grassroots supports health sciences students who are interested in working rurally, with activities such as trips to remote parts of the country and overnight marae stays or noho marae.
“You get to see the really rural places and talk to the people who are working there,” Dunstall said.
Through 2023, Dunstall was co-chair of a national group, Students of Rural Health Aotearoa, the student chapter of Hauora Taiwhenua Rural Health Network.
This group also organises rural trips for health students where they visit schools.
“We explain to the kids what our roles are and the pathways into studying. It’s shedding light on what’s involved and bringing health into rural communities so it’s not so scary,” Dunstall said.
The rural visits also prove inspiring, with doctors reporting the rewards of being truly part of the community, as well as being called on for a huge variety of work, including some gnarly cases and many unusual ones.
“One rural doctor had been called on to deliver sheep.”
Rural and regional doctor shortages will weigh into her decisions for the future, although Dunstall wants to keep her options open for a while.
Dunstall started her studies with a year of health sciences at the University of Otago, but, along with many of her peers, didn’t get into medicine at that stage. She undertook a Bachelor of Science and then did succeed at getting into medicine at Auckland through the Regional Rural Admission Scheme.
Among her regional placements, Dunstall spent fourth year in Waikato Hospital, and fifth year in Whangārei Hospital on the Pūkawakawa Regional-Rural Programme, where she spent seven weeks in satellite hospitals in the Bay of Islands and Kawakawa.
One highlight of medical training was on a Raglan placement. Every fortnight a group of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, social workers, a mental health team and other healthcare workers travelled to a rural marae to offer free healthcare.
“People travelled long distances to attend – people who may otherwise not have presented for a health appointment,” Dunstall said.
“You can see all the barriers they are addressing in one go. If only more healthcare like that was funded, it would be so, so good.”
Dunstall has also been learning te reo online through Te Wānanga, at level three this year.
All of which has fuelled her passion for rural medicine, which sees doctors working at the top of their scope, particularly in rural hospitals.
“There are fewer people, so you get more responsibility, more hands-on learning, you’re more of a team member.”
It hasn’t been easy, but Dunstall would say to other young people contemplating a career in medicine to not give up on that dream, even though they will encounter seemingly insurmountable hurdles.
Dunstall helped collate feedback from school visits for Hauora Taiwhenua and said the themes were that rural teens face numerous barriers to studying medicine.
“I think a lot of them were reflecting on the session and saying, ‘I didn’t know that there were these different options’ or ‘I didn’t know that, coming from this school, I could go and do that’ or feeling it was so far away, it didn’t seem achievable. And then talking about loneliness, cost barriers and needing to work to support people at home as well.
“So, I want to be encouraging for people to look into studying medicine and think, ‘Oh, I can do that.’”