Victorian dentist Ken Farmer went to Alice Springs on a three-week placement and three years later he’s still there
The 34-year-old has embraced the community, played local football and says he has seen things that most Australians will never see.
Ken was sent to Central Australia after registering with the Remote Area Health Corps (RAHC), which offers short-term paid placements to urban-based health professionals to support the permanent health workforce in remote Indigenous communities across the Northern Territory.
He had spent some of his childhood in New Guinea and his father worked in developing countries. Ken followed these footsteps and worked on an aid project in East Timor.
“I sort of figured I didn’t know enough about my own back yard as I would like, and went up to Darwin for a bit of a change,” he said.
“I worked in private practice for a year, got fed up with that, heard about RAHC and thought this sounds good.”
After completing his placement, Ken went to work for the Northern Territory Department of Health and began recruiting through RAHC himself.
“It’s hard to convince people to come up and work in the Territory, especially people with good experience, energy, and a sense of humour and adventure,” he said.
“I love this place so much. I’ve never been one to wear suits and ties. I have to wear shoes to work but I go barefoot around the streets and no-one cares or looks at you.
“There’s no rushing, it’s free of the rat race.
“You’ve only got to go 20km in any direction and you’re in the wilderness. There are beautiful waterholes and great 4WD opportunities.”
Ken said the dental work was diverse and challenging.
“Some of the health outcomes we come across are as bad as you see anywhere else in the world,” he said.
“Most Australians have no idea what’s going on in this country.
“It’s definitely enlightening. It gives perspective on things you might be complaining about and problems in your own life.
“We can design the best dental programs that we want, but we’re losing the battle to the global soft drink giants every day of the week.
“Things are slowly improving with what’s happening in shops and schools in communities. If we can change the diet we’ve got a better chance of saving ourselves thousands of fillings and extractions.
“Prevention is always better than treatment.
“Smoking is a problem too and we see a lot of gum disease as a result.”
Ken believes the loss of traditional culture has contributed to poor oral hygiene.
“I’ve come across a couple of old guys who had their first dental visit in their 60s and they’ve got perfect teeth and they’ve never brushed them in their lives,” he said.
“These are the guys who still live off bush tucker and kangaroo, still hunt and know the old ways.
“We can give out as many toothbrushes as we want, but in my opinion unless you change what you’re eating it won’t make any difference.”
Ken said the work was more satisfying than private practice.
“I get to see trauma and cancer cases, medical cases. There are no resident specialists in Central Australia or Arnhem Land.
“If you’re back in private practice you tend to be doing a lot of teeth whitening, check-ups and cleans; we get to do health care still, which is why I did dentistry, not to sell whitening products as a businessman.
“It’s a lot more interesting to be involved with health care, and makes it easier to get up and go to work in the morning.”
Ken said there’s plenty of work for people who want to make a difference. He said RAHC relieved the pressure on permanent dentists in Alice Springs and helped build relationships in remote communities.
“RAHC is really fantastic, it increases the options and resources for the NT Department of Health,” he said.
“There are some excellent dental nurses and therapists as well, who have been doing it for a long time. They’re incredibly gifted and passionate about what they do.
“If someone is semi-retired they can do several stints in a year. It’s great if they go back to the same community and build relationships.”
Ken said potential recruits needed to be prepared for difficulties, harsh conditions and administrative tasks.
“People have got to be flexible because things do go wrong,” he said.
“You need to have a good sense of humour and be a people person, have a passion for adventure and a commitment to doing health care and helping people.
“We’re not out there to make money or brag about the work we do.
“People have to be aware they won’t be staying in a five-star resort in a remote Aboriginal community. There might be the odd spider or bug around.
“You’ll have a mattress to sleep on and usually there’s an air-con, but there are no coffee shops.”
Ken said the rewards included meeting some wonderful people and seeing special places.
“Sometimes the community might allow access to a beautiful site that tourists don’t normally get to see,” he said.
“I’ve seen some amazing places.
“Working in a remote community is a chance to provide necessary health care and experience things you would never get to do anywhere else.”