Dr Joanne Walker is a passionate health professional who has dedicated the last two decades of her career to bettering the health of local women. FOCUS caught up with her for a chat about her work and her hopes for the future of the sector.
Can you tell us about your connection with the local area?
I have lived in Coffs Harbour for just over 18 years. I moved to the area just after the birth of my first child (time flies). My husband is a local specialist and had always wanted to work in a rural location; he had grown up in a country town. I grew up in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney and love the coast; Coffs Harbour was our happy compromise. We have never looked back.
We now have four children who all attend local schools, our oldest currently doing her HSC and our youngest still in primary school. Our children have always been involved in sport and various activities. I also love to play netball and am currently involved in the Coffs Harbour Triathlon club. This has helped us to become enmeshed within the amazing Coffs Harbour Community. I love living in Coffs Harbour and feel privileged to be part of such a wonderful community. I could not think of a better place to have raised our family. Coffs Harbour just continues to get better, with our own local university, good schools and easy access to capital cities.
What is your role and position?
I work as a medical practitioner at the Coffs Harbour Women’s Health Centre, which has been in Coffs Harbour for longer than me.
I work with an incredible group of women in a very flexible work environment. This job has allowed me to raise my family and be available for my children while having a career that I love.
Do you have an area of expertise or focus?
I work primarily in women’s health issues. I have expertise in the insertion of IUDS (intrauterine device). This is a device that is placed within the uterus and was developed for the management of heavy periods in women and to provide reversible contraceptive cover for up to five years.
I am involved in health education of women and preventative medicine. Our centre has been involved in educational evenings for women, providing up to date information and an opportunity to meet other women in the area.
I have also worked at headspace Coffs Harbour, which deals with young people aged 12 to 25, primarily with mental health issues.
More recently I have started work in skin cancer medicine.
What are some of the biggest issues in women’s health in the local area?
Women present with a variety of issues, among the most significant including mental health problems, domestic violence and drug and alcohol issues. There are also the traditional women’s health issues of contraception, sexually transmitted infection (STI) testing, menopause, osteoporosis, incontinence and breast lumps. There are also women who want to improve their overall health and work on fitness and weight management.
How can these be overcome or improved?
A stitch in time saves nine, as the saying goes. Early investigation of symptoms and prevention with easy access to health care are the key to most health issues. At Coffs Harbour Women’s Health Centre we have a team approach, with access to a Dietician, Psychologist and a specialised women’s health Physiotherapist, as well as massage and acupuncture. We provide a safe, welcoming atmosphere for women to be able to engage in easily.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to women about their health?
“If you don’t make time for health (physical and mental) you will have to make time for illness.”
In order to keep your family healthy, you need to keep yourself healthy. (Your body is your temple). Love your family, but develop some interests and hobbies of your own. You are an individual beyond your family.
Surround yourself with people who are good for you and value yourself.
Start today – if you are not looking after your health and fitness now, it will be harder later.
Find some physical activity you love doing; find what drives you to get there. For me, it is definitely the social aspect and company of others. For others, it may be the time to themselves. Develop a routine.
Eat healthily; decrease stress. Take time to enjoy life.
Keep up with preventative health screening – pap smears, mammograms, bowel cancer and diabetes screening, hypertension and cholesterol. It is easier to treat disease if detected early.
When patients visit, what is the main reason they seek help?
Many women come to us as they feel more comfortable being examined by women for women’s health issues. They also see us due to our longer appointments and reputation for having a particular interest in and specialised skills in mental health. We see a lot of young women for contraceptive advice and pregnancy planning and STI testing, who are particularly concerned about confidentiality. We encourage all women who attend the practice to have their own general practitioner for non-women’s health related issues.
What do you feel is lacking in the area of women’s health, and how can this be improved?
The main issue facing most health sectors currently is funding. The government’s freeze to Medicare rebates (and the mental health nurse initiative programme) makes it increasingly difficult to offer quality services at little or no cost. Our outreach clinics to rural areas rely on secure government funding. Again, the uncertainty around ongoing funding of women’s refuges is another pressing issue for women fleeing domestic violence in Coffs Harbour. The best way these issues can be improved is by all of our community in Coffs Harbour to lobby our politicians on issues that are important to us. Affordable access to support groups within our community is another issue women face.
What are your hopes for the future?
Coffs Harbour could become a community that opposes domestic violence and supports all women to achieve their goals and potential. The Coffs Harbour Women’s Health Centre hopes to be able to always support women on this journey. We would hope that more women access groups available for them to improve their health (e.g. exercise groups, surfing groups, gardening groups etc.) We would like to be part of more educational events in the area for women.
Where can women find out more information?
Local resources such as the Women’s Resource and Information Centre (Valley St, Coffs Harbour).
Internet sources such as Coffs Harbour Women’s Health Centre website:
www.genhealth.org.au or Facebook page.
Jean Hailes Foundation (great website on women’s health issues): www.jeanhailes.org.au
FPA health: fpnsw.org.au
Beyond blue: beyondblue.org.au
youth beyond blue
Black Dog: blackdoginstitute.org.au
Thanks Dr Walker.