One student’s plan to improve healthcare in rural areas

Rashmi Jayathilake travelled across the country to study Medicine at UNSW. Now, she is looking to take her skills back to the areas that need it most.

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Rashmi Jayathilake always knew that she wanted to spend the last two years of her degree helping patients in regional areas. Image: UNSW

Rashmi Jayathilake started shadowing doctors long before she became a medical student.

Always fascinated by the human body, she was eager to start work experience at her local hospital in regional Queensland while still in year 12. Watching the doctors care for their patients set Rashmi on the path of the kind of doctor she wanted to one day become.

“Having an awareness about your patients and their lives is very important, whether you’re working in a city or in a rural area,” she says.

“The way my supervising doctor interacted with his patients – acknowledging their concerns and noticing other factors that would contribute to their treatment – gave me that awareness.”

Rashmi is now in her fourth year of a Doctor of Medicine at UNSW Sydney. She is currently undertaking her research year at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) and, next year, she will be heading to Coffs Harbour for a two-year practical placement. 

“I always knew that in my last two years I wanted to go rural. It's a great teaching experience with incredible support given to students at hospitals."

Rashmi hopes to one day either work in regional or rural areas. Just last week, a UNSW study showed that regional and rural doctors are more likely to be satisfied due to factors like better work-life balance and more varied work.

Putting people first

Wherever Rashmi decides to practise medicine in future, her priority is working with people.

“I really want to work in a specialty that has a lot of patient interaction. I want to follow patients starting from their initial consultation, all the way through their treatment journey.” 

This desire to support patients throughout their treatment is one of the reasons that Rashmi is drawn to specialising in gastroenterology, a field of medicine that deals with the stomach and intestines.

“Illness doesn't just affect the physical parts of you. It affects your mental health, how you’re able to work and live, your whole family."

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Rashmi Jayathilake loves chatting to prospective students and letting them know why she chose UNSW Medicine. Image: UNSW

Finding a support network

Having moved from Toowoomba to study at UNSW Sydney, Rashmi faced many stressors at the beginning of her degree. Her biggest challenge became managing her own anxiety and mental health. 

“I struggled a lot with anxiety when it came to studying medicine. I was afraid to reach out to people, to tell them that I was struggling. I was afraid of being judged. I was afraid that I was going to get in trouble for not doing as well.

“I think a lot of students try to power through it alone. They think that they should be able to handle things, that they shouldn't be struggling.” 

It wasn’t until Rashmi’s second year of university that she decided to reach out to someone. She now looks back on that decision as the best choice she ever made.

“The Medicine Faculty is incredibly supportive. They want you to do well. They're not out to find your flaws. 

“It's very personalised. You're not just another student to them.”

Rashmi was overwhelmed by the support from other students and staff. She recalls a time when even the course convenor went out of their way to support her.

“I’m grateful I went through that struggle in order to get to where I am today. I've definitely grown as a person. 

“I try to be as open as possible about mental health now, because I think if someone was more open about it back then, I wouldn't have felt like I needed to hide it. Now, I’m hoping someone hears me and realises that they’re not alone.”

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MedShow is directed, produced, written and delivered by medical students at UNSW Sydney. Image: Supplied

Supporting the next generation of medicine students

Rashmi knows that it can be easy for new students to focus solely on studying all the time. As a regular student guide at O-Week, Rashmi makes sure she tells prospective students all about the various clubs, societies and extra-curricular activities they can get involved with on campus. 

For Rashmi, her outlet is dance.

“I loved to dance growing up. It's something that's really important to me and a huge stress reliever. I was worried that coming into university meant I would have to give all of that up. 

“What I love about the Medicine Faculty, and UNSW as a whole, is that they really encourage you to  become involved in student life and have a healthy study/life balance. There are so many different societies to join and new ones starting up all the time.”

The highlight of Rashmi’s academic calendar is ‘MedShow’ – an annual charity fundraiser production involving around 100 medical students. MedShow is full of singing, dancing and acting, and usually parodies a famous movie. This year’s show was 10 Things I Hate About Flu

One of Rashmi’s favourite moments was when a first-year student approached her at a MedShow rehearsal to say that Rashmi had been her Open day guide over a year beforehand. The student had been looking forward to being involved with MedShow ever since.

“If I’m able to encourage a student or make them excited about something, then I’m happy.”