COVID-19 Advice for the JCU Community - Last updated: 30 November 2021, 10am (AEST)


College of Medicine and Dentistry

Publish Date

1 December 2020

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Making moves to pursue medicine

Dr Steve Johnston is a dedicated advocate for rural and remote health and a graduate of James Cook University’s medical training pathway, from undergraduate to specialist GP. Now based in Weipa, Cape York, with skills in anaesthetics and ear nose and throat medicine, he is passionate about providing medical services to those most in need.

A trip to the sunny north for a medical school interview was all it took for Dr Steve Johnston to fall in love with the region, farewell Victoria, and set his heart on a future in medicine in Queensland.

“When I was doing my interviews in Melbourne it was the middle of spring yet still cold and miserable and everyone was wandering around in suits. Then I came up north and people were in shorts and thongs. After my interview, I went across to Maggie Island and had an absolute ball.  I just fell in love with the place. When I found out I got into JCU I was over the moon,” Dr Johnston said.

Steve Johnston fishing off Weipa
Steve Johnston on the beach with his doc
Dr Steve Johnston enjoying the lifestyle in Weipa

Falling in love with rural

But while he was prepared to farewell Victoria, the one thing he wasn’t prepared to give up was his focus on rural medicine.

Coming from Bairnsdale, three hours east of Melbourne, he’d grown up with a love of rural life and knew the value of great general practitioners in regional and rural communities.

“There were some really great docs in the community, they were always involved in the local events and sports teams. You went to school with their kids, they were people you really looked up to and respected.  Everyone in the community did, and they did so much for all of us,” Dr Johnston said.

“I was always interested in health, and always wanted to do something that would bring me back to a rural area. I just didn’t expect that would be in Queensland!”

With a passion for the country JCU’s medical program, with its heavy rural focus, was the perfect fit. Dr Johnston found his love for rural medicine during his rural placement at the end of first year.

“It was a real kick in the bum, a reminder of why I wanted to do medicine, and it all just sort of skyrocketed from there.  I got more and more involved with the rural side of things and went on more rural placements. I went out to Mount Isa in my second year, and again in my fourth. I had an absolute ball.”

If his first five years of medical school confirmed his passion for rural medicine, it was Dr Johnston’s sixth year in the remote western Cape York town of Weipa that opened his eyes to where he wanted to live and practice.

“No other place I’d worked had allowed me to do that much medicine. The whole generalist thing just appealed to me from the get-go. When I came up to Weipa and met the team it was awesome. I loved it. I was pretty much heart set on it from there, and Weipa was my number one goal,” he said.

“The range of medicine you get is just unreal. You go from anaesthetics to emergency, and then to a lot of outpatient stuff. You go up to Napranum and Mapoon, which are some of the outreach clinics in the communities.”

“I was with a couple of mates in Weipa and every weekend we would take the boat out and go up the Cape. You get such a great balance of work and play and are supported by the docs very well.”

With his long term plan to return to the far north, Dr Johnston opted to explore more of the state during his intern and early training years, heading to Toowoomba and rural Stanthorpe in southeast Queensland.

But all along, Dr Johnston never gave up the idea of returning to the far north.

Dr Steve Johnston with his dog outside Weipa Hospital

Fighting ear disease

While waiting to take up his anaesthetics training in Townsville, he went back to Weipa. It was then he became acutely aware of the impact ear disease was having on communities across the Cape.

“I got distracted by ear problems in the community, and as I do I get distracted by little things that then grow into big parts of what I do.”

“Ear disease had already been identified as an issue through the Cape but there was no continuity of ear, nose and throat (ENT) services in the region. A couple of my supervisors and close mentors mentioned the ENT Special Interest training post in Logan under Associate Professor Bernard Whitfield and from there it really just grew.”

Dr Johnston admits he didn’t know much about ENT, but knew there was a huge problem, and while Thursday Island and the eastern Cape were well serviced, the western Cape was left far behind.

“Serious cases were sent to Cairns almost a thousand kilometers away. But many people simply didn’t go. Then they would turn up here again with pus coming out of their ears,” Dr Johnston said.

“We needed sustainable, and community led care with a consistent ENT presence. So much of ENT medicine is about preventative care, but that needs relationships and trust between yourself and the communities. To build that you need people on the ground, and a consistent service.”

“It also needs educating and upskilling, which is easily said, but hard to do when you have to cover such a broad area. We felt a generalist focus would be the best way to try and cover this, so I went south to Bernie, who turned out to be hands down one of the greatest people you will ever meet.”

Steve Johnston at Cooktown Hospital
Steve Johnston in clinic
Dr Steve Johnston at Cooktown Hospital

Meeting a need

While building his skills, Dr Johnston and Associate Professor Whitfield also hatched a plan to bring desperately needed ENT services to Weipa’s surgical lists and hold outreach clinics across Cape York.

“Bernie was gracious enough to let me fly up to Weipa and start doing outreach clinics around Aurukun, Weipa, Kowanyama, and Lockhart, and all through the Cape to Cooktown, Hopevale and Wujal Wujal. I’d come back and have a case discussion with Bernie, and we'd talk with the clinical nurses and audiologist. We’d then go back to the community and come up with plans about who needed surgery and develop surgical lists for Weipa and Cooktown,” he said.

“It was crazy. About 60 percent of the kids we saw around the Cape had functional hearing loss. Up to half the kids had a hole in at least one of their ears. But with Professor Whitfield’s support and the backing of the doctors of the Cairns and the Weipa Integrated health service we were able to develop a functional and sustainable ENT service for the Cape region.”

Eighteen months on, and having completed his anaesthetics training and managing around COVID-19 restrictions, Dr Johnston is back in his beloved Weipa, getting clinics up and running again, with hundreds already waiting to be seen. It’s not been an easy process, but for Dr Johnston, he’s exactly where he wants to be.

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