An estimated 200 dentists have moved from the city to rural and remote communities in recent years, many successfully. Here’s how some have made that work. By John Burfitt
The appeal of moving out of the big smoke to a new lifestyle in a smaller community—a tree or sea change—has been a big driver of the Dental Relocation and Infrastructure Support Scheme (DRISS) in the past five years. Catering to a community just waiting for a new dentist to service the long waiting list of local patients has also made good business sense.
For the estimated 200 dentists who took up the call, it has, by and large, worked out. According to practitioner surveys conducted by Rural Health Workforce Australia (RHWA), 90 per cent of dentists who moved under DRISS stated they were “satisfied/very satisfied” with their rural dentist experience.
The issue of dentists making such moves geographically was addressed in 2016’s Dental Practitioners: Rural Work Movements study by the Australian National University and University of Tasmania. Among its findings, however, was a concern about retention, with, “a high turnover of dental practitioners, where new graduates and young dental practitioners enter rural areas to gain experience and then move back to urban areas”.
But when talking to a range of dentists who have made the move into rural areas in recent years, what emerges is not only a genuine satisfaction about relocation, but also a range of insights into what it takes to make such a move work.
The dentists spoken to for this feature told of the good business opportunities available in smaller communities along with significant skills-learning and career-building prospects, plus just the positive impact of a change of lifestyle pace in some of the most beautiful parts of the country.
On the other side of the coin, however, is the reality of leaving all the attractions and resources of the city behind, the effort to set up a new client base and the expectations of living and working in a smaller community.
“So much of it comes down to building trust,” Dr Anand Makwana, the principal dentist of Warragul Dental Care, says. Warragul is about 100km east of Melbourne, and Dr Makwana moved there three years ago with his wife Belinda. “It’s almost like you have to prove you have moved in to become a part of the community, and you are not yet another practitioner who will be in and out. Patients are very savvy and if they think you don’t want to be there, they will pick up on that.
“If you are doing it purely for financial rewards and think being in the country is an easy ride, then stay in the city.”
Dr Vicky Prokopiou, owner, iDental
“If you are someone who plans to take off back to the city every chance you get, then this is not going to work for you long-term, nor for the community who want consistency in their care.”
Dr Makwana found after buying a new home that the business began to flourish. “This is about wanting to be here and be a part of this community for the long-term, and it has been a winner for us. We are now expanding because business has been that good since we first opened the doors.”
The benefit of making a serious commitment to remaining local is echoed by Dr Vicky Prokopiou. She relocated her iDental surgery from the Sydney suburb of Burwood four years ago to Coonabarabran, almost 500km north-west of the city.
“If you are doing it purely for financial rewards and think being in the country is an easy ride, then stay in the city,” she says. “Your heart and soul must be in the move and in the new community, so that over time, you integrate into and gain the trust of the community. You have to be a people person to survive in the country.”
Dr Prokopiou tells that she and her husband Peter were actually invited into the community, due to the desperate need for dental services in the area. “We were at a function where, by chance, some Coonabarabran locals approached us and expressed their need for a dentist in town,” she says. “We were a new couple wanting to start a family and decided it would be the best move for us.” Within 12 months, iDental surgery was relocated, and very quickly the reality of the differences of operating in a small town became crystal clear.
“Some people think rural living will be easier and more relaxed, but in reality, it is quite the opposite as you are further away from other services and are ‘it’ within the town,” Dr Prokopiou says.
“You must also involve yourself. iDental surgery does that by regularly attending community expos and events, along with visits to nursing homes, schools and sponsoring sporting teams.”
“The opportunities I have been given here are well beyond what a lot of my friends back in the city have had.”
Dr Bolun Zhang, dentist, Chapman Road Dental
The lifestyle change, she adds, has been well worth it. “There’s a lot of support for us and the community have welcomed us with open arms.”
The value of doing extensive research into the new location—its population, local economy and, most importantly, the number of competing dental practitioners—can’t be overstated, says Jennie Tylee-Porter, owner of Dubbo’s Parkside Dental Surgery in the NSW Central West. “You must thoroughly investigate the number of dental professionals compared to the local population,” she says. “When I first moved to Dubbo in 2010, there were half the number of dentists there are now.
The market has changed that dramatically, however the misconception that a move to the country is a goldmine still exists. There is, of course, still a strong demand for dental services here, but you need to look into all the details before making that significant a move.”
On the other side of the country, Dr Bolun Zhang has spent the past three years since graduating from the University of WA, in coastal Geraldton, over 400km north of Perth. It was his first job out of uni, and at the time, he made a two-year commitment to his new role. Having recently changed clinics to work at Chapman Road Dental, he has just made another two-year commitment to stay in Geraldton.
“When looking at my options, I figured there was no reason not to go to the country,” Dr Zhang says. “The opportunities I have been given here are well beyond what a lot of my friends back in the city have had. Because we are so far away, you learn to be resourceful and, in my time here, I have had the chance to do most dental procedures, which is part of the challenge.”
But he does recommend that anyone considering making the move should think long and hard about the lifestyle they want before they pack their bags.
“Think about your commitments to your family, your friends and the kind of life you lead,” he says. “If you want to be on the go all the time and don’t know how to keep yourself occupied, this is not for you. I’ve got very involved with the local sporting groups and that helped me settle in. It’s also how many of the locals got to know me and trust me as their dentist. I am in no hurry to move on anytime soon.”