The MD with a PhD

When Dr Danielle Butler was working as a GP in rural and remote communities in the Northern Territory, she started to notice patterns.

“It seemed to me that for my patients, health care use was as much about where you lived as who you were,” she remembers. “And that could change from place to place.”

While some of her patients in remote areas were very disadvantaged, they could access healthcare services such as teams of educators, doctors, counsellors and nurses, in a supportive environment and be healthier as a result.  

“On the other hand,” she says, “in some wealthier city areas I worked in, it seemed despite there being a multitude of individual services, if you were struggling financially or had other social stresses, a person could not access the care in the community they needed, for example seeing a physio, or a psychologist.”

What started as an observation, turned into a frustration, and eventually, a solution.

“There’s only so much you can do as an individual. I couldn’t understand what the policy decisions were behind these patterns, and why things were being done the way they were.

“That got me interested in being able to document and measure what I was experiencing as a GP. I wanted to turn these anecdotes into numbers so I had something to take to policy-makers and decision-makers to say, this is the evidence of the impact the policies are having and here are the ways of changing it.”

So Dr Butler started collecting evidence, embarking on a PhD with the ANU Research School of Population Health on the organisation and delivery of the primary healthcare system, and the impact it has on a patient’s ability to access quality care.

Today she is graduating as a different kind of doctor—“As my colleagues at the Research School of Population Health would say, now I’m actually a real doctor!” she laughs—with her roles as clinician and researcher proving mutually beneficial.

“Working as a GP on the ground gives you a unique perspective of how things work in the real world. That’s really helpful when you look at the data in a big research project and make sense of it. You know what kind of questions to ask.”

And, working in reverse, she says, it’s also really helpful in the patient setting to be able to communicate the way evidence underpins her clinical decisions, something her patients seem to appreciate.

“I also have a lot more empathy and compassion now in terms of the greater system patients are dealing with, and the environment they’re existing in. The anecdotes have become a measurable pattern.

“Now it’s a truth, not just a gut feeling I have.”

Find out how you can turn a gut feeling into evidence-based health policy through postgraduate research at the ANU Research School of Population Health.