A change of scenery

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ScenerySometimes you want to run for the hills after a long and busy day, and some of us go so far as to do it. Amy Gray chats to some converts who have made the trade from city surviving to country living. 

As the astronomy capital of Australia, everyone goes to Coonabarabran to see things clearly. It’s no wonder Dr Vicky Prokopiou gave away her practice in Sydney for something better and brighter in this town of 3,000 people.

“There’s always a social thing happening, even though it looks like a quiet town. I love the people, and it’s beautiful,” she says.

Dr Prokopiou and her husband Peter Samios chanced upon the idea of moving to “Coona” when they met people from the town at a party in Sydney. “They told me I should move there, and that’s how it all started. They planted the seed.” Once the couple made the move Peter quickly found work at StarFM in Dubbo, as Dr Prokopiou spent nine months looking for the perfect building while juggling jobs in Sydney and Coonabarabran.

Referring to the nine months of real estate hunting as her “gestation”, Dr Prokopiou used her time wisely by getting to know the community. She would introduce herself to people running the local shops and restaurants, letting them know she was looking to start up a practice and asking for their opinions. By the time she opened her practice, there was a welcome bouquet awaiting her… and a line of patients.

Getting Dr Prokopiou on the phone is a challenge—she finds she’s busier in Coonabarabran than she ever was in Sydney. “There’s six of us now!” she exclaims, with new graduate dentist
Dr Aaron Gasgoine joining the practice in December.

In Parkes, also famous for its connection to astronomy, Dr Khazima Riaz arrived with her young family and started working at an existing dental practice. Dr Riaz and her husband, locum doctor Usman Cheema, “wanted to get out of the rat race—we moved here and never looked back”.

For Dr Riaz, life in Parkes offers everything her former Rose Bay life couldn’t. “It’s massively different”, she says. “I have such great job flexibility, especially with [my] kids, and can do 9am to 3pm as a working day. It’s de-stressed us all—Sydney is full-on in comparison.”

In fact, her boys are enthusiastic converts to Parkes—jumping into the sports community, skyrocketing ahead with their grades and refusing to go back to their old city: “they don’t like going, they love being here,” she laughs.

While both Drs Prokopiou and Riaz have found their places in their communities, they also both took advantage of the Dental Relocation and Infrastructure Support Scheme (DRISS). The scheme allocates relocation or infrastructure grants to encourage dentists to move to regional or rural areas. Grants are based on an applicants’ business case.

Dr Riaz used her grant to pay for the relocation and set-up costs to move to Parkes. She initially started working with Dr Mike Richardson, who later fell ill and passed away. Dr Riaz then took over and modernised the practice. “Before, it wasn’t a service, but it is now”, she says, referring to a more comprehensive patient care model, including education and advertising. “I’m used to that, coming from Sydney.”

Dr Prokopiou also brought a fresh take on dentistry and patient care: “It’s modern, it’s up to date, it’s what I know and they appreciate it.” She used the grant to start a new dental practice and bought an X-ray machine, which she believes has given her a competitive advantage in the community—plus peace of mind. “I wouldn’t be comfortable without it (the machine),” she says. “I’ve always had one, so I’m really glad we’ve been able to access one with the grant.”

She was not daunted about starting iDental Surgery from scratch in Coonabarabran, having already built her own practice in Sydney’s Burwood. “That [experience] made me a bit more assured,” and it shows in her approach. By the time she opened her practice, the entire community knew and came on board.

Dr Prokopiou has translated that awareness into more community work offering flexible dentist care and education. She visits schools and old peoples’ homes to explain good dental maintenance and identifies younger people who may be interested in dentistry, inviting them into the surgery to learn the ins and outs of the career.

These are all things that make both Drs Prokopiou and Riaz part of their respective communities. Dr Prokopiou believes people know “we’re there in emergencies,” providing modern care without the need to travel to other communities. “People in rural areas realise that customer care is vital,” and Dr Prokopiou ensures they get what they need. “I want to take the extra 10 minutes talking with people,” she says. The move has stretched both dentists’ knowledge, with patients aged anywhere between two and 92 years old. “Here you need to take a bit more charge, because people can’t always travel,” says Dr Riaz. Both dentists agree that meeting the needs of an entire community has made them truly hone their generalist skills.

But the demand for their services has also made them so busy it makes attending CPD courses—the very tool to help expand their skills—more difficult. But Dr Prokopiou has finally figured a solution: “we’ve got to plan ahead and block out our dates, so we can maintain our education as well as our patients.” By blocking out time, patients can be booked around time away spent learning.

Despite some unique challenges, DRISS has been invaluable for both dentists, whether in defraying costs or ensuring their surgery has the equipment they need. The scheme has become hugely popular with dentists around Australia and many have relished their tree-change, with 58 per cent of DRISS grant recipients intending to stay in the area for over three years and 25 per cent planning to stay rural for at least a decade. Khazima agrees. “We’re building! We don’t ever want to leave!”

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