Dr Lisa Opie: Walking the walk

For Dr Lisa Opie, being her own boss was a dream that came true when she bought an old fire station in her hometown in country NSW.

  4 minutes


For some GPs, starting their own practice is simply a case of putting their money where their mouth is. Certainly, that was the case for Dr Lisa Opie, who decided to take the plunge after many years as a locum and working in other practices, and as a VMO at the local hospital. “I was becoming quite opinionated about how I thought general practice should be, both from the patient point of view and from the practitioner and staff point of view,” she says. “And I felt I had ideas about exactly how things should be. It's been really satisfying to be able to walk the walk, to follow through and, instead of saying, ‘Oh, I wish we could do it like that’, to actually be the one where if a change needs to happen, it's me who has to do it.”

That’s why in December 2019 she purchased an old, dilapidated fire station in the town of Crookwell, where she lived, in central western NSW. The fact that the property needed extensive renovation was more appealing than intimidating—it was a great excuse to call in the architects and create something exactly as she wanted it. The challenge was that it was December 2019—in a few months the pandemic would grind the whole world to a halt.

A country practice

For Dr Opie, settling in Crookwell had come after many years travelling around regional New South Wales. “I trained in Adelaide, which is where I grew up,” she explains. “I went to Flinders University and initially started doing some surgical training. When our third child was born, I went into general practice in Adelaide. Then in 2009 we moved to the far west of New South Wales near Wentworth. And I did the rest of my general practice training there.”

She and her husband Richard purchased a sheep farm out there and she settled in to work in Aboriginal health. When the time came to sell the farm, they decided to travel around a bit and see where they would like to stay next.

“So we put the kids in a caravan and started travelling about,” she says. “I did a lot of locum work. In 2009 I did a locum in Crookwell and we all really liked it, so we decided to settle here.” She worked at one of the established general practices for about seven years, and also worked as a GP VMO at the local hospital.

It was a combination of the people and the land that drew them to settle there. “It's a really lovely community,” she says. “It's a really close community and it's really good farming land. We bought another farm here. The town is nicely positioned. It's an hour and a half from Canberra. It's about two and a half hours from Sydney. So it offers the best of both worlds. You can be in Sydney in a couple of hours, but it's just a gorgeous little friendly country town.”

While working at the hospital, she also opened a satellite practice in the nearby town of Taralga, a tiny town about 40 kilometres away. “There was a lot of need for a general practice in the town,” she explains. “I used to go there weekly, and I still go there fortnightly. The Taralga practice building is owned by the community, and we rent it. I started there in 2019 just once a week while I was working at the hospital. And then we decided it'd be great to go back into general practice.”

That’s why her practice, Thrive GP, opened a couple of years ago, with the aim of “doing things how I liked them done”. The old fire station in the main street of Crookwell was the ideal location but needed to be developed. So she rented a property next door, opening the doors of the practice in July 2020 while she planned the redevelopment.

The vision

Dr Opie had some clear ideas about how she wanted the new practice to look, from the waiting room through to the nurses’ room. “I wanted all the rooms to have natural light, for example,” she says. “The architects and builders were able to accommodate those requests. I think probably the trickiest bit was maintaining the facade and demolishing, because it was pretty much a derelict building. Building a modern building behind that original facade was probably the most complicated part of the process. And it was a fairly slow process, mainly because of the pandemic.”

Even though work started at the end of 2019, they didn’t move into the new building until March this year. Although the pandemic was the primary cause of slowdowns, other factors had an impact as well, but Dr Opie wasn’t unduly stressed. During the build her practice continued in the rented premises next door, so time pressure wasn’t a factor. “It was worth waiting to get everything exactly how we wanted it,” she says now.

BOQ Specialist helped finance the build. “We went to a College of GPs seminar on owning a practice and Luke Truscott [from BOQ Specialist] was there. We thought he was really helpful and practical. And because there are so many factors with financing a GP practice that are just particular to the profession, we felt like we didn't have to do as much explaining. It was just a simpler process because that’s what BOQ Specialist do.”

While there were one or two small elements she has since realised could have worked better, overall Dr Opie is very happy with the result. Now they’ve moved in and Thrive GP is, well, thriving, and Dr Opie is learning some of the ups and downs of practice ownership. “I think we’ve learnt a lot about employing people,” she says. “Almost all of our staff come from industries outside of general practice. We really chose potential staff members on their attitude, in order to ensure the practice is a nice place to be. And that’s what I wanted. Now we have many patients say to us, ‘We love coming in here. We feel so welcome. You've got the most beautiful staff’."

The ideal practice

The central west of New South Wales is filled with charming country towns like Crookwell and Taralga, and Dr Opie hasn’t ruled out the idea of expanding the Thrive brand further afield. But that would only happen, she jokes, if “we found another charming country doctor. It all comes down to staffing, and even though we have a couple of doctors now, the main thing that stops us expanding is the availability of staff. We're trying to expand our allied health services at the moment and we’re getting some allied health educators. One of our receptionists is a Pilates teacher, so she's using our front rooms to teach Pilates and we're trying to get as broad a range of services as we can.”

In general, however, the experience of building her practice has been a rewarding one for Dr Opie. “I wanted it to be a place where the patients were really happy to be here and the staff were happy to be here,” she says. “That was my vision—for it to be a good place. And I think they probably go hand in hand—I don't think you can have a place where everyone's miserable and expect the patients to love it. We seem to have avoided the clichés of a medical practice, where you have a grumpy receptionist or something like that. That's been the best bit. It's been really exciting.” 

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