An American Doctor Enjoys Life Down Under

“We always had a dream,” Dr. Shieh grinned, “and we decided to live it.” Dr Marie Shieh, a family medicine doctor, was living in La Jolla, California; was married, had children, a beautiful house, and loved her job. One day, she and her husband made good on their dream to travel; they sold their house, packed their belongings, piled their kids into an RV, and embarked on a cross country trip which became a global adventure.

Traversing the United States

Dr. Shieh hopped from one locums opportunity to another, living and working in New York, North Carolina and with the Indian Health Service in Oklahoma, Arizona, and Northern California. Her husband practiced acupuncture when possible and home-schooled the children. After logging over 35,000 miles on their RV they ditched the van and flew to Hawaii for a locums job in paradise. “We got an apartment in Waikiki,” Dr. Shieh chuckles, “and we went to the beach every day.”

Kaikohe, New Zealand

Dr. Shieh found a locums position in New Zealand and obtained a locums license . She practiced in Kaikohe, a small rural town on the North Island, and her position provided a furnished home and a car. She took call every 4th or 5th night, a challenge as the clinic was located in a remote part of Northern New Zealand. There were no hospitals nor any pharmacies near her, and she was one of the few physicians in the area. The overnight calls could get quite busy – and since there were no pharmacies nearby, she would at times need to go into the clinic just to physically provide albuterol refills if a patient had an asthma exacerbation but had run out of albuterol.

Her responsibilities also included assisting with ambulance calls including car accidents – an opportunity to build her skills in emergency medicine. Overall, New Zealand was a very easy medical system to fit into and her children attended a local school.

Beijing, China

Dr. Shieh moved to China to share her Chinese heritage with her children. She took a job at Beijing United Family Hospital, which served an international clientele where the majority of the patients were expats and where the majority of the care was provided in English.

The initial transition to working in China was challenging. She worked as a family medicine doctor during the day but took night call as a hospitalist practicing inpatient medicine – in the early 2000s hospitalists were rare. Specialists were also uncommon and she often called specialist colleagues in the US for curb-side advice. Dr. Shieh was not proficient in Mandarin – as a child her parents rarely spoke to her in Mandarin. She had studied Mandarin in college and became fluent only after moving to China.

Dr. Shieh and her family had initially intended to live in China for two years – but two years quickly became ten. Living in China with a family was easy. Her children attended a local Chinese school, made Chinese friends, and became fluent in Mandarin. Her husband practiced as an acupuncturist – “the only red headed freckled acupuncturist in China”. They did not need a car- they rode bikes, took taxis, utilized public transportation, and walked. Best of all, they had a housekeeper. “The laundry was done, the house was clean, the shopping was done, dinner was made!” extols Dr. Shieh.

Returning to San Diego

After ten years in China, Dr. Shieh and her family returned to California in 2011 to care for her aging parents.  She opened her own family medicine practice and worked in an urgent care clinic.

“We raised our children as international children – and of course now they want to remain international and they wanted to stay in Australia…”

Her children graduated high school and moved to Australia, wanting a continuation of their childhood adventures. Dr. Shieh reflects that “We raised our children as international children – and of course now they want to remain international and they wanted to stay in Australia”.

Tanilba Bay, Australia

Dr. Shieh and her husband moved to Australia to be closer to their children. As a foreign physician, Dr. Shieh needed to obtain a position in an “Area of Need”, an area with few general practitioners compared to the local population. Foreign doctors have to work for 10 years in an area of need before working in a city. She browsed many job boards and cold emailed many employers. She interviewed over Skype and landed a job within a couple hours of Sydney. Then came the paperwork, bureaucracy, immigration, and exams. One and a half years after deciding to move to Australia, she and her husband arrived in Sydney with one suitcase each.

Dr. Shieh has been practicing medicine in Australia for over five years and currently practices at a clinic staffed by the healthcare providers from all over the world. The physicians in her clinic are mostly foreign medical graduates – 2 Filipino doctors, a Scottish doctor, an English doctor, an Iraqi doctor, a Thai nurse, and an Iranian owner. “I never thought of myself as a country person – but I fell in love with my town. I go snorkelling and swimming every day,” gushes Dr. Shieh.

“Every patient can have a GP, can have access to medications, and can go to the hospital and not become bankrupt…”

Australia has been an incredible place to practice family medicine. “Everyone has a GP, everyone loves their GP – they want to come to me for everything. The healthcare system is fantastic – it is such a relief to practice medicine in a place where I don’t have to ask ‘can you afford this medication’ ,” exalts Dr. Shieh. She feels empowered to work within the Australian medical system. “Every patient can have a GP, can have access to medications, and can go to the hospital and not become bankrupt”.

For more on transitioning to Australia see our Ultimate Guide to Practicing Medicine in Australia

Lessons Learned

There were three key elements that made each transition smoother. First, Dr. Shieh and her husband had the same goal for their family – they wanted their family and their children to have an international experience.  Second, flexibility is one of their strengths – any adventure abroad will have unexpected setbacks but also unexpected opportunities, and a flexible mindset helps in making the best of both. Lastly, moving can be overwhelming. Packing light and moving into a furnished home – or an RV- can simplify the process.

In regards to her most recent move to Australia, Dr. Shieh reflects – “If I had really thought through coming to Australia – I may not have done it, but now that I am on the other side of the paperwork and exams – I am so glad that I made the move to Australia.”

Dr. Ashwini Bapat is a palliative care physician who attended medical school at Tufts University and completed residency and fellowship training at Yale-New Haven Hospital. She now resides in Portugal and provides clinical care through telemedicine.

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