Why I went rural: One dentist's experience of practising away from the city

24 October 2019

A fly-in fly-out (FIFO) job after graduating changed the course of Dr Shiv Pillay’s life.

Growing up in Auckland’s city centre, he never thought that a FIFO contract job involving two weeks in and then two weeks out in Emerald, central Queensland would turn into a permanent career move. Now happily ensconced in a new life in the mining town located three hours inland from Rockhampton, married father-of-two
Shiv reflects that it was an easy decision to move to the friendly community where everyone knows everyone.

The lure of the job initially was the fact that his boss at the time told him you get to do a lot of extra work as there were no specialists in the area. “When the hard work comes in, we have to do it ourselves,” Shiv says.

“I was a new graduate and thought I’d be able to jump in and get a bit of experience under my belt”, Shiv continues. “I had a chat with another friend who used to fly in and out with me. Then I just decided to move to Emerald because we were doing a lot more advanced work with the patients out here than I was in Brisbane.”

Calling Emerald home
What was supposed to be two years in the country before returning to the city has become home seven years later, and there are no thoughts of moving any time soon. While Shiv and his American-born wife Natasha thought the move would be short-term – “we thought we would stay two years, learn as much as we can and then go back to the city” – things have turned out entirely differently, with Dr Pillay admitting that ”the friendliness of the patients made the move to Emerald easier.”

Helping too was a decision by Shiv’s then-bosses to sell their practices at the end of his second year in the job. Purchasing all three practices, located in Emerald, Middlemount and Dysart was pretty straightforward. “They were going for relatively cheap, so we bought them. We thought we would do them up and then sell them.”

But life had other ideas, and instead of moving and selling on the practices, Shiv stayed put and had two kids with wife Natasha before buying a house in Emerald. “And then my mum and dad bought the house across the road from me. I think we’re going to be here forever”, he laughs.

Friendly locals
It’s the patients and the staff that keep Shiv in the area. When you have a good reputation in a country town it helps your business. Shiv said, “I don’t have to advertise. My patients come to me by word of mouth. I often treat entire families. If I treat one patient right, then  the rest of the family comes to see me.”

When he goes shopping, he expects to run into patients, who will always smile and give him a wave, emblematic of a town where people have a lot more time for you. These friendly daily interactions stand in stark contrast to his time in the city, where he used to walk down the street with headphones on not expecting to know anyone.

Country people are well-known for giving people a fair go and it is no different in Emerald. They understand things can go wrong. “As long as they know you are doing your best and treat them fairly – they’re really good people out here.”

Relaxed life in the country
Life in Emerald is a lot more relaxed than in a metro practice. Shiv used to go to work in a shirt and tie when he first arrived. Now he wears high top sneakers and scrub pants as his patients appreciate a more friendly, relaxed atmosphere.

Hand-in-hand with this friendliness, is a refreshing honesty. “If they don’t like something, it’s not as if there’s a big secret about it. They just tell you they don’t like it and then you move on. I really love that. You always know where you stand with them and it makes it really easy to work with people.”

Family community
With two young boys, four and two-years-old, born in Auckland, the family is very much part of the local fabric. “It is like we are just one big community. We make a big effort to get to know our patients on a personal level and they know us. We often post pictures of the kids on our Facebook page to share with the community,” said Shiv.

City facilities in the country
With Emerald, Middlemount and Dysart mostly mining communities, there are a lot of FIFO workers. They often book in for emergency dental work but have their regular dentist in Brisbane. Almost two or three times a week someone will come along and tell him to patch them up until they get back to their regular dentist.

“There seems to be a misconception that because it is a country practice, we don’t have the latest tools and gadgets. I had one patient last week tell me her dentist has this amazing 3D X-ray machine. I said we’ve got that. And she says but he can do same-day bridges and crowns. Yes, we can do those too.

“We have to have even better equipment here as there are no specialist services around us. For example, if I don’t do a certain type of treatment then my patients have to drive three hours to get that treatment. If I cannot do the treatment here, many just don’t get it done. So, I have to buy the latest gadgets.”

Country living is a no-brainer
Shiv notes that for him it is a no brainer moving to a rural area. “Now that I am out here, I know I would struggle going back to the city. It would be an uphill battle. Now that I have the commitment from the patients I have – I know I take it for granted how easy it is to communicate with my patients. How relaxed I can be at work.

“If I was in the city, I would probably refer some of the work I do to a specialist because they are located close by but here in the country, we don’t have that luxury, so I have to be able to cover the full scope
of dentistry.

“For graduates hungry to learn as much as possible, for me, it is a no brainer. They should definitely consider coming to the country.”

Plus access to the internet has made the move easier. “You can buy almost anything online. And when it comes to dentistry, there are some great online groups. I have never felt isolated or out of the loop in terms of research or communicating with colleagues.”

Working in the country is a great learning opportunity for graduates. Shiv said his current associate dentist worked elsewhere for a few months and was not learning enough there. “He is on his second year with me now and doing all types of awesome stuff. He has really dug in and worked hard. If you ask any of his friends who graduated at the same time, none of them are doing the type of work he is.”

As Shiv’s three dental practices go from strength to strength, he is relishing his career in the country, with no intention of giving up country life anytime soon, his focus is firmly on providing patients with the best dental practices and state-of-the-art equipment so they do not have to travel hours for treatment.

If you are interested in exploring new opportunities in other areas of Australia, the ADA Jobs Board is the number one place to find that job.