Cricket, flu bugs and fast cars - meet Auckland GP John Cameron

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Dr John Cameron has many loves, some of them quite contradictory.

By his own admission this cheerful 61-year-old is a cricket tragic – he has watched, and treated, the New Zealand Black Caps for many years in far-flung destinations like Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. But as a microbiology graduate John also harbours a ‘burning love of influenza bugs’.
 
And then there are fast cars, which were at least partially responsible for him choosing his career path. 

“As a 14-year-old I really looked up to our family GP,” says John. “He was the definition of a kind and caring human being. But I have to admit that I was just as impressed by his British racing green e-type Jaguar. After I saw his car I knew I wanted to be a GP!”

Fast cars, flu bugs and cricket aside, it’s John’s love of being a ‘specialist generalist’ that has kept him at Westmere Medical Centre for almost 30 years. He says it’s a privilege to be deeply involved in the wellbeing of so many people in his community, along with their families and friends.

“What I love about this job is the depth of involvement and responsibility,” says John, who left medical school in 1982 to pursue a career as a surgeon. After house surgeon years in Canterbury and Auckland, John decided a career in surgery was not for him and joined the GP vocational training programme. Following a few months as a locum in Australia, John toured Europe with his wife Kristine before a stint as an emergency doctor at the Royal Surrey Hospital in south-east England.

The couple came home in 1987 and John took up a role at Westmere, before buying the practice a year later. From starting with no patients, Westmere developed into an award-winning, Cornerstone-accredited practice that now has four doctors, three nurses, two reception staff and 4,500 patients.

John has ‘no regrets whatsoever’ about his decision not to pursue surgery. “A surgeon will remove a tumour and have very little interaction with the patient,” he explains. “But as GPs we are with the patient before the tumour, on discovery of the tumour, in the lead up to surgery, after surgery, and all the time we are helping the patient – and often his or her family – deal with the issue, both medically and psychologically.

“Being a GP is a major responsibility with almost constant concern about the wellbeing of so many patients, and that’s why I regard the job a privilege. Who else has that much involvement in the wellbeing of individuals and communities?

 “I smile on the way into work every morning,” he adds. “Being a GP is an absolutely fantastic job but we have to do more to sell the career to others.”

For John, one way to address New Zealand’s looming GP shortage is to ensure more exposure to general practice in the hospital-based training programme. “There is lots of exposure to partialist pieces of medicine. Registrars shift from one to another and it pretty much all takes place in the hospital.

“Let’s get these students and young doctors out into primary care and have them ride shotgun with experienced GPs. We need to spread the understanding that being a general practitioner in a community is probably the most senior of all the roles available to them.”

As John’s career has progressed he has done more to ensure greater public awareness of health issues, through regular media work including his current fortnightly slot on TV One Breakfast and his weekly ‘Dr John’ hour on The Rock radio station.
 
He is also helping the future generation of GPs through his role as a medical educator in the GPEP2/3 programme. “I started the ME work in February this year and I am loving it,” says John. “It’s a great feeling to give back to the profession. The registrars I work with often know 10 times more than I do, but I can help them because I know 10 times more about how to apply that knowledge in GP land.”

John’s know-how results from more than his almost 30 years as a GP. He has also fulfilled other professional roles to broaden his experience of the wider health sector, including senior positions at ProCare Health, the primary care organisation that provides management services to 180 general practices, 800 GPs and 800,000 patients across the greater Auckland area.

As a practice owner John was pleased to see the recent launch of the College’s Practice Ownership Guide and is a firm believer in the need to find new ways of making ownership a realistic option for young GPs.
 
“I got into practice ownership easily back in 1987,” he says. “These days it is a lot harder and much more expensive. We need to be canny about how we break down the barriers to ownership. I’m certain that doctors having a stake in practices – real skin in the game – can only be of benefit to everyone involved.”

For as long as he finds himself smiling on his daily drive to Westmere, John intends to continue his much-loved life as a GP.
 
“If the smiling stops – and I doubt it will – that’ll be the time to call it a day,” he says. “But I won’t go on forever. Another five to seven years should do it!”