Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Education a passion for Moe surgeon

David Birks: 30 years of teaching.
Education is a passion for Moe surgeon, David Birks.

Now retired from full-time surgery, Dr Birks has been teaching medical students in the Latrobe Valley for more than 30 years and hopefully will continue teaching for some time to come.

He was there at the beginning of the Monash School of Rural Health, together with Anne Lerversha  who is still with SRH Latrobe Valley.

It was the school’s founder, Professor Roger Strasser, who had no trouble in persuading his colleague to join him. Professor Strasser was then in general practice in Moe with Dr Birks.

“We had many discussions in the tea room about attracting doctors to the Latrobe Valley,” Dr Birks recalled. “All training then was city-based.

“Roger approached Monash University about it and a professor at the Alfred agreed to send some students.

“It was semi-official for three years then Roger got things going. He led the first Centre for Rural Health in Australia, possibly in the world, from the old Moe Hospital.”

Dr Birks combined work as a consulting surgeon at the hospital with lecturing in surgery.

 David Birks' father was a surgeon in Moe but Dr Birks, as a school student, was unsure about a future in the medical profession. He attended Albert Street Primary School and then Geelong College.

“When I was a kid, I didn’t think about it too much. I had no strong feelings although it seemed a reasonable proposition. Then at the end of secondary school, I had to make some sort of decision.”

The next few years saw Dr Birks completing medical training at Melbourne University.

Then he and his wife Kaye, also a doctor, travelled to Canada with their baby son to take up medical internships. While in Canada their family expanded with the birth of their daughter and another son.

They spent six years in Vancouver where Dr Birks trained in surgery before working in England and then returning to Australia in 1977.

“I was okay with working in a rural area but initially didn’t want to work where I had grown up,” he said. “I thought I needed to be more independent. But I gradually lost that concern and an opportunity came up here.”

When the Birks arrived in Moe, the Latrobe Valley Hospital was relatively new. Dr Birks worked as a general surgeon and joined the Moe Medical Group where he met Professor Strasser.

“It is all credit to Roger who worked through the system to set up a university centre here,” Dr Birks said.

“We started to secure placements. The students were guided by specialists, GPs and nurse educators.

“There are great advantages studying in a place like the Latrobe Valley with lots of patients with interesting conditions and fewer students than in Melbourne. They (students) get a huge range of experience…they have a wow of a time.”

Dr Birks said technology was the biggest difference between medical study today and in his undergraduate years. He marvels at the use of simulation training. “In my day (as a student), you practised on the patients.”

He believes one of the biggest challenges is that medicine is now far more complicated. As the population ages, people have multiple illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, blood clotting and then possibly pneumonia.

“Patients are therefore rarely looked after by one doctor. It is a medical team where communication is essential. That is the biggest challenge for modern medicine.”

According to Dr Birks, there is a need to get more Gippsland students into health professions. He said there was strong evidence that students from a regional area were more likely to return to that area. His son Robert is a Moe GP.

However he said there needed to be more emphasis on education locally. “We need to change the culture that exists in some schools,” he added.
“Medical students also needed to be committed.”

Initially appointed as a .2 lecturer with Monash SRH, Dr Birks has increased his time to .4. He and fellow general surgeon Peter Burke both teach anatomy to students. Together with local orthopaedic surgeon George Owen, they were recently honoured by the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons for their contribution to the profession.

And Dr Birks shows no signs of slowing down. He is also chair of the college’s Surgical Teachers Group which runs teaching courses for young surgeons.

Education is definitely a passion.

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