Sophie Ping is currently with the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine and she says the pathway that led her there is not common.
“As a general practitioner, I saw a lot of domestic violence. I saw a lot of women who didn’t have health literacy. Then it sort of came to me in a flash one day – the realisation that I wanted to do forensic medicine,” Sophie says.
“Some of my mentors had done this previously and, in Ballarat, there are only two people qualified to do forensic examinations. In some ways I am creating a bit of a niche for myself.”
Sophie’s role entails examining alleged offenders and victims of physical and sexual assault, and assessing people’s fitness for police interviews.
She says most referrals are from the police.
“If the police are considering going ahead with charges, they will contact the Ballarat Centre for Sexual Assault to undertake a physical examination.
“We take photos and samples. We also consider such matters as whether the person is drug affected or needs increased medical attention.”
Sophie is intrigued by some people’s morbid curiosity about what she does.
“They have a fantasy that it is like CSI. In some ways it is, but often it is just an extraordinary amount of paperwork.
“It is tiring and draining and you need to be incredibly prescient and aware of what you are saying. You need to be careful not to use jargon or say something that might be misinterpreted.
“You second guess yourself a lot. But at the worst possible moment in someone’s life, you are there to help them and that is extraordinary. A full sexual assault examination of a female with other injuries could take two to four hours and during that time you might see a shift in the patient.
“You actually develop a fleeting but intense relationship… they have a person who is there for them – who is entirely interested in everything they are feeling. They understand that what you are doing is to help them.
“It requires a combination of skills. If you come out feeling that you have done the best you can for a patient, and you actually see a shift in how they are emotionally, over those few hours. It is quite extraordinary and you know you have done something.
“The majority of the time people will come up and say thank you so much for taking care of me. It is really powerful.”
Sophie first applied to do medicine straight out of high school.
“I didn’t get in. That’s okay. I think things tend to happen at the right time for the right reason and, if I had gone into medicine when I was 18, by now I would be burnt out and very angry,” she says.
“I did an Arts/Science degree. Then I did honours in science. Then I did a PhD in neurophysiology. I worked in research for a while.
“I was a senior tutor in medicine physiotherapy at Melbourne University. I was made redundant and that turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Sophie went to Samoa for a year and worked there at the University of Medicine, which offers mostly online programs.
“Scholarships were offered to Samoans and Pacific Islanders to try and improve medical education. I ran the campus and taught the introduction to medicine module.”
“It is a patriarchal, religious society with a lot of non-verbal communication which is tricky… they are keen to be seen to be helpful. Hence, some people will say yes to everything but simply not do it. It can be very frustrating.”
Sophie left Samoa and went to Darwin for three years, where she coordinated the nursing science degree. She then decided to make the move to medicine.
“I sat the GAMSAT and was fortunate enough to get in.“I went to the School of Medicine at Deakin where I was enrolled in the Integrated Model of Medical Education in Rural Settings program and spent my third year in rural general practice.
Through this program, I learned a lot and it did not diminish my desire to be a GP.”
During the first half of her final year, before moving on to forensic medicine, Sophie lived and worked in Maryborough where she “saw real medicine”.
“I was at one of the general practices at Maryborough. We all worked together and we took turns to run the urgent care centre. We would see our patients during the day then be on-call overnight or run the clinic on the weekend.
“Maryborough has a district health service with about 25 acute beds and two emergency beds. There is a nursing home nearby. Local GPs see all of their patients in the hospital, including people in acute beds.
“They take turns to run the urgent care centre and see a lot of acute medicine such as heart attacks and strokes. They decide whether somebody needs to be evacuated to a hospital.
“When you are working there, you have to trust your own judgement and have backup plans.”
Sophie’s advice for new registrars
“I would always suggest that people do more than one year in a hospital. The knowledge acquired will be useful. Much of general practice is about pattern recognition and feeling comfortable. Take that extra year. It is only a year.
“Additionally, general practice training is not very long, so if you are not sure which specialty you want, absolutely do general practice! There are so many transferable skills. And we get to do so many different things – it is not sitting in a little room all day seeing people with coughs and colds.
“You have such an impact on people’s lives and you have an impact in different ways. It is about improving health literacy. It is about seeing families. It is about teaching people things about themselves that they didn’t know. It is an opportunity to be really intimately involved in people’s lives without an “all care but no responsibility” attitude.”
"Do more than one year in a hospital. The knowledge acquired will be useful."