Dr Helena Rosengren has a bold vision to stop the loss of lives to skin cancer in North Queensland. As the founder and Medical Director of Skin Repair Skin Cancer Clinic, she has devoted her career to advocacy, research, and teaching, and this week celebrates the 20,000th new patient to come into the clinic for a screening skin check.
“Skin checks save lives,” she says.
“Two out of three Australians will be diagnosed with a melanoma by the age of 70, and there is no doubt that Queensland is the skin cancer capital of the world.
“Early intervention is crucial. Immunotherapy has had a revolutionary impact on advanced melanoma, but many people do still die from their tumour. A melanoma is far better managed with early detection and excision.”
It’s far from the career she anticipated when completing her studies and exams for general practice in the UK.
“I wanted to see a bit more of the world before settling down in a Dorset practice, so I answered an ad for a GP position in Townsville in 1994,” she explains.
“I hadn’t bargained on falling in love with the Australian culture and North Queensland, so I prolonged my stay, also working at Atherton Hospital for 18 months.”
With her passion ignited in skin cancer medicine, she joined a corporate skin cancer clinic when it opened its doors in Townsville in 2004.
“The experience was invaluable and we were doing some great work for the public,” she recalls.
“I could see however that there were ways of improving the service offered that would help reduce the burden of skin cancer in Townsville and Far North Queensland.
“In particular, I wanted longer appointments for skin checks for high risk patients, a recall system for people who had been diagnosed with more serious skin cancer, full body photography to be offered to those who had had melanoma and the availability of photodynamic therapy to treat established sun damage and help prevent skin cancer.”
After many discussions with the corporate company leading nowhere fast, it dawned on Helena that if she opened a clinic herself, she would be able to provide the sort of service she was asking for.
“By 2009, there was already increasing awareness in Townsville of the need for skin checks,” says Helena.
“The new clinic built gradually by word of mouth. We became a training practice for GPs in 2012 and since then we have had had numerous GP registrars up skill with us in skin cancer for six monthly periods.
“Our clinic has an excellent reputation and I insist on nothing short of the best for our patients. I put a lot of effort into training doctors to ensure the public is as safe as possible when it comes to diagnosis and treatment of skin cancer.”
With her clinic having now provided comprehensive skin checks for 20,000 North Queenslanders, it seems the message to be vigilant is getting through, but Helena says there is still work to be done to ensure every Australian makes it a priority to book a skin check with a qualified skin cancer doctor.
“A couple of years ago we started to do TV, radio and Facebook advertising because I wanted to reach out further in providing comprehensive skin checks for Townsville and North Queensland residents who may never have had a comprehensive skin check before,” she says.
“We are after all most likely to save a life with the first skin check on someone rather than once they are under our regular care.”
In addition to in-house training for GPs, Helena is a senior lecturer at James Cook University, and has taught at skin cancer workshops and conferences throughout Australia and overseas. She has published a number of skin cancer research papers in medical journals, is the Chair of the research committee for the Skin Cancer College of Australasia, and as a member of a Cancer Council of Australia working party, actively helped develop the new skin cancer guidelines for Australia that were published in 2019.
Helena is also the Managing Director of Skinovation Cosmetic Clinic, which she opened next door to Skin Repair Skin Care Clinic in 2017, to offer holistic cosmetic care. She admits it is a challenge fitting everything in.
“Fortunately, I am supported by an excellent team of office manager, receptionists, nurses and doctors, so the clinic runs like clockwork whether I’m there or not,” she says.
“To fit everything in I try to be organised and say no to things I’m not passionate about.”
She acknowledges she has had to learn business and management skills along the way.
“The lessons have been huge for me. It feels like I have had to evolve exponentially as the businesses have grown,” says Helena.
“I knew little of what leadership really meant when I started out, but hopefully am improving in this respect.
“With time I have learnt how to empower and more fully support our talented nurses and receptionists so they can ensure our services remain second to none. Immediate respectful feedback and regular team meetings have been key.”
Sharing her vision and commitment to patient care with her team has also contributed to Helena’s business success.
“I have also learnt how important it is that I fully share my vision for both the skin cancer and cosmetic business with our team and that all our staff have aligned values with the businesses.
“Additionally, I have come to understand the importance of development and training not only for our doctors, but also for our nurses and receptionists, to help them grow and realise their full potential.”
By Julie Johnston for BDmag
Australia and New Zealand have the highest rates of melanoma in the world, with our national statistics showing an overall incidence of melanoma of 48 per 100,000 people. There is no doubt that Queensland is the skin cancer capital of the world, however, with the much higher than national incidence of 71 per 100,000 people.
Melanomas can be difficult to identify as they can be any size, any colour (including skin coloured), raised or flat, rough or smooth and can occur on areas of the body that have never or rarely seen direct sun.
Dr Rosengren recommends regular skin checks with an experienced skin cancer doctor who is trained in using an instrument called a dermatoscope, which makes the surface of the skin transparent so that deeper structures become visible and can then be fully interpreted.