A retired doctor sits down with Jess Farrow, Ekas’ Panel Manager to share his story, and some parting advice for starting, living through, and retiring from a rewarding medical career.
The healthcare industry is full of challenges; from study and research, to keeping up to date with advancements, to maintaining the personable in the professional; and while it has many rewards, it also has its challenges, regardless of the healthcare sector. After years of rigorous study, training and on-the-job learning, young doctors are launched into the world of patients and medicine. With this comes the emotional burden and physical demands, as some new doctors manage the added pressures of research and further study, which they feel are necessary to progress their career at a reasonable rate. So how can medical professionals build a career that will leave them feeling successful and satisfied? After 43 years, Ekas’ very own medical opinion leader and retired physician shares how he carved a fulfilling career which he now looks back on with little regret. Predominantly working in paediatrics for hospitals in Sydney’s North, we sat down with a retired doctor to learn about his journey.
As with everything we do here at Ekas, we offered the doctor to speak to us with anonymity (so we’ll call him Doctor Brown), and this respected professional offered his thoughts and memories on his career; from how to treat your colleagues, medical education, fundraising, and the decision making that comes with retiring. Beginning his career in rural Australia in the early 70’s working with indigenous communities, Dr. Brown found a passion for working with those who need it the most and learnt the importance of putting the patient at the forefront of all he does. He then spent the most part of his career working in neonatal, obstetrics and management roles but notes that the charitable work he was involved in was one of the most satisfying parts of his journey. Since retiring, he now dedicates time to leading and mentoring soon-to-be doctors as part of their final years of training.
Being a young doctor in the 70’s
Of course, things are vastly different for doctors starting out today than they were 40 years ago, so we at Ekas were keen to explore Dr. Brown’s experience of beginning his career in the 70’s. After working in rural communities and moving to a general practice in the city, Dr. Brown followed his interest to see how he could make the move to working with newborns. After seeing an ad in the paper Dr. Brown applied and got his first job in paediatrics and within two weeks was packing up his life and moving interstate with his wife and child. They lived at the hospital for a time, until they found somewhere more permanent. While this was a challenge, in reflection he describes how it benefited his family to be enclosed in the hospital community so intensely, which allowed he and his wife to make firm friendships that lasted. These friendships were certainly vital for surviving the ‘draconian hours’ Dr. Brown distinctly remembers, working whole weekends from Friday morning through to Monday evening and ‘getting some sleep if you could’. The funny part, he slips in, was that overtime pay was only 25% of the regular pay. Of course, time has brought us forward a long way in terms of working conditions, though Dr Brown still remarks how the official ‘workable hours’ these days are often breached, and believes that just because so much has changed doesn’t mean that new issues haven’t cropped up for doctors.
In discussion Dr. Brown mentions perhaps the most notable change in his career over the years; marvelling at how technology has saved so much time for day-to-day tasks. He considers all the treks to the library he had to take to find the Index Medicus, in comparison to doctors now getting around the ward as they tap away on their devices. But for all the benefits of modern technology in the nitty gritty running of medical practice, Dr. Brown warns of one side effect that he feels is being overlooked in the current education system: prioritising the personable in the professional.
The key to a fulfilling career:
After an extensive career, to reflect and find only fondness and satisfaction is surely something we all strive for? So we wanted to dive into not only what experience has taught Dr. Brown but what were the most fulfilling aspects in his work life that he could pass on to doctors who are starting out and continuing to grow in their career…
“Face-to-face consultations are so important, rather than face-to-screen”
When visiting a medical practitioner himself these days, Dr. Brown finds the lack of eye contact off-putting, as fingers tap the keyboard in unison with the conversation. He knows that the graduates coming through the system today have the great benefit of full computer literacy and declares “they’re well in advance of the people who are trying to teach them”. So, when tutoring and mentoring, Dr. Brown focuses on what he can teach them – the human side of being a doctor – noticing when a patient might be feeling uncomfortable in discussion or looking for the visual queues that are often missed if just listening to verbal.
“You’ve got to remember that everyone’s human. And you’ve got to be very aware of how you can develop or crush a therapeutic relationship even with a couple of loose words”.
- Charity work
“Paediatrics is much more than treating children with stutters”.
Becoming involved in charitable organisations, he learnt quickly that even in realms of good intention, politics are plentiful. Working in paediatrics many believed that the department was less significant than other parts of the hospital, and so the need to fundraise grew from a lack of support from management for funding. Dr. Brown felt frustration at the perception that paediatrics was considered by some to be just about treating children with stutters. “What about the little babies? The babies on the ventilators or with heart disease?”, he rebutted. And so, they used that human compassion as a lever to support the department. Using a strategy which changed the charitable organisations outlook for years to come, they developed a trust with donors by providing transparency of how the donations were used. This allowed corporations the opportunity to sponsor life-saving equipment such as baby ventilators. Networking was a big part of the charities strategy in attracting companies and corporations as sponsors. The consistent messaging about how this funding would help the children resulted in the charities success in greater equipping the ward.
“Working towards a tangible piece of equipment – is much more beneficial.”
- Having an excellent team around you
“The good ones, put out fires without calling the fire brigade.”
The interpersonal skills that made Dr. Brown such a successful fund raiser are what he believes to be vital as a successful medical practitioner. In describing how the same goes for an excellent administrative assistant, he provided a simple example of the big impact of small things; If he had been held up in a medical urgency whilst a parent and patient awaited his arrival for their appointment, a good secretary understood the value in easing anxiety with the offer of paying for their parking, in providing valuable care and empathy. They understand that a coffee won’t do the trick, because when the restless child undoubtedly causes the coffee to spill on the carpet, the calm is gone, and the cleaning costs far outweigh the cost of a parking fee.
In speaking of his administrative and secretarial staff, the doctor explains his dislike of the term ‘office staff’, feeling that it doesn’t give enough weight to the work they do. He feels ‘support staff’ doesn’t quite hit the mark either. ‘They’re almost like ‘sentries’ he decides, adding that the good ones ‘put out fires without calling the fire brigade’. When asked about his opinion on nursing being an under-valued profession in the industry, he agreed, adding he always valued his nurse’s opinion and that when tutoring younger doctors, he tells them of nurses;
“They know a lot more than you, practically. And it would be unwise to not ask them what they thought and respect them as your professional colleagues.”
The road to retirement and a better night’s sleep…
After such an involved career, how does one know when it’s time to give up something they’ve dedicated such energy to and sacrificed so much for? Dr. Brown explained that he found himself assessing his reactions to the still-demanding hours, such as getting up at 2am a few times a week, being on call and the lack of sleep during the busiest times.
“You do make mistakes when you’re tired, and you do have a downturn in your cognitive skills when you get older”.
The potential for error and mistake alerted Dr. Brown that it was time to start thinking about retirement. Another thing that increasingly bothered him was the “loss of irreplaceable moments with family”, and the fact that it seemed impossible throughout his career to have more than two weeks leave for holidays. Once the decision was made, that was it. He gave himself a 6-month time frame, and started the process by notifying his colleagues, the hospital, and then his patients. Dr. Brown found this period and process very straightforward, only suffering a slight discomfort when, after promising to find his support staff great replacement jobs, he had to say goodbye to his admin assistant a few weeks early after the perfect role became available for her. At least, he said, he got to appreciate the full value of how much work his loyal staffer had absorbed for him and could only appreciate her the more.
Life on the other side of retirement
With a smile on his face Dr. Brown explains how he has spent time with family and traveling on all the trips he could not manage throughout his career. Becoming involved as a mentor to soon-to-be doctors has been a wonderful experience, he explains, though he can’t help but feel frustrated when he hears of young doctors wilting under the pressure. Dr. Brown reflects on the early days of his career, when peer support and mental health issues were not considered a priority, but throughout his career he has learnt the importance of being there for each other.
“Medicine is an extraordinarily collaborative and supportive specialty and there are always people around who can help.”
In his tutoring, they discuss topics such as ethics, morality, conflict management and mental health among medical practitioners. He feels that as great as their education is these days, there is a lack of conversation around how to handle stress and in dealing with ethics in their jobs versus their own morals.
“They have to get accustomed to the fact that they’re in a position of extraordinary privilege and with that privilege carries a lot of responsibility. You’ve got to think and you’ve got to have rational reasons for why you do things.”
At the end of it all, he feels great satisfaction at what his career accomplished, though if he were to be able to go back and visit his younger self, the advice he’d provide would be to always remember your empathy and pay attention to the details.
“Everyone’s a human, everyone’s got feelings, and you are never allowed to trample on feelings. How do you do that? It takes time to pick up on non-verbal messages and pick up on those feelings. If you want to have a successful relationship with your patients and colleagues, it’s got to be based on trust”.