Struggle Town. Population: Me


I logged on to Facebook while I was waiting to board my plane. As I scrolled through the feed, it’s as if everyone was shouting. The screen filled with arguments about right and wrongs, with humble brags and not so humble brags, with politics and choosing sides. My DM’s weren’t much better on all of my social media platforms, with “you should do this” and “can you help me with something” as well as the random smattering of unhelpful and downright rude comments.

Stuff this, I thought. I do not need to listen to this for a second longer and so I logged out of each and every one of my social media accounts, temporarily deactivated Facebook and put down my phone just in time for take-off.

If you ever want to see panic, deactivate your Facebook account, even temporarily. They give you more chances to change your mind and come running back than a needy ex as they ask repeatedly, ‘are you sure, really sure you want to leave?’ Yes Mark Zuckerberg, I really am sure that I do not need Facebook in my head every second of every day for a little while at least.

My utter disdain for social media was not just about social media. It was about all of the other things in my life. Work pressures, life pressures, quick turn-around travel itineraries where I forgot my shoes, socks and phone charger. Things have been overwhelming me for a little while now and as a quintessential type A personality, I tend to pile my schedule so full that it’s only when I feel as though I’m about to buckle under the weight.

When that time comes, I find turning off social media just one tool in managing my stress. I use social media for my day job, where on Twitter I can keep up with the latest developments I need to know about and network and learn from colleagues. On Instagram, I post health information and interact with other people. Facebook has become pretty much centred around groups for various interests or friendship groups. All in all, a large chunk of my brain can at times, be taken up by social media.

When other things start to get busy and life starts to get complicated, social media is always the first thing I take a step back from. As soon as I do so, I can feel relief wash over me. I don’t think I ever really appreciate how draining the constant connection, the bickering and the seeking approval that seems to make up online interactions can be until I take a step back and just breathe. It’s like the volume on the shouting got turned down.

Don’t get me wrong here; I think social media is a tremendously useful tool. It can connect you to people in a good way, forge important relationships, provide mentorship, information exchange and democratises access to expertise that doesn’t happen in the real world. It’s also fun. But the stressors of living life online are omnipresent and it’s important to mindful of them.

Research has supported this phenomenon of stress coming from social media. On Facebook, teenagers were studied and those with a strong FOMO (fear of missing out) found that they had significant stress from being online. Social media use can contribute to and cause burn out. Other research has shown an association with the number of platforms used and depression and anxiety.

For me, at this time, social media wasn’t the cause of my burn out. My feelings of being overwhelmed and under-rested/poorly taken care of are the result of many things happening in my life. I work a very busy and stressful job, I had just cancelled my upcoming holiday (long story), I know the coming months are going to be busy and bring some challenging times. I am also incredibly worried about a few things going on in my world at the moment. But by logging off, I got some perspective and mindfulness about what I needed to do in the real world, not the one on my phone, in order to feel and function better.

It has taken me a long time to understand the importance of taking care of myself and recognising when I need to recharge my own batteries. I am far from perfect or even good at it. The thing is that I know how important it is. My patients and my colleagues rely on me performing at my very best and so I owe it to them to do that. And I owe it to myself. Over time, stress and burn out have very significant side effects on our mental and physical wellbeing and I do not want that, not one bit.

Struggle Town is not a great place to visit and when I feel like I’m heading there, I know exactly what to do to keep myself out of its pull. When I’m ready, I’ll rejoin the shouty Facebook groups and the Insta-stories or whatever else goes on. But for now, I am enjoying the peace and quiet.

Behind the drapes: the reality of life as a doctor


My longest day at work?

I was a registrar and we were doing a big cancer operation. I got to work and did a ward round at around 7am. We started operating at 8am on the Thursday and the operation finished at around 3:30am on Friday. With the patient back in the Intensive Care Unit, I raced home for a shower and a change of clothes. I was in the car on the way back to the hospital at 5am; it wasn’t good news. There was a problem for this patient. We observed her for a couple of hours but we were back with her in the operating theatre at 10am. I finally went home at 5pm on Friday, so delirious I couldn’t even direct my mum out of the hospital and back to my house.


I’ve heard the jokes about doctors. Wednesday is golf day, we all drive a Mercedes and live in mansions that over look the beach. We swan onto the ward, just like on TV, look at some charts and then swan out again. It’s shiny, pompous and lucrative. Except that this could not be further from the truth.

Today the 7th of June is Crazy Socks for Docs day where doctors and anyone who wants to lend some support are encouraged to wear your craziest, mismatching socks as a marker of the very real and very prevalent issues of depression, anxiety, suicide and burnout amongst doctors. Research from BeyondBlue showed that doctors, particularly medical students and female doctors, had a much higher rate of mental illness than the general population and a frighteningly high rate of suicidal thoughts.

The troubles facing doctors have reached a fever pitch and with good reason. Doctors are struggling and the worst part about this is that it puts two groups at risk; the doctors and the patients they are there to take care of. The reasons that doctors are at risk are myriad. Medicine can be inherently stressful; it has struck me on more than one occasion how much pain and suffering I’ve seen over my career and that is something that other professionals aren’t necessarily exposed to. The stress of being responsible for another person is enormous without doubt. In addition to this, doctors can be exposed to long working hours, on-calls, bullying and pressures from administration.

Many doctors are suffering in silence, afraid to ask for help for risk of being seen as weak by their colleagues, risking important and difficult to come by training positions or for fear or reprimand by the Medical Board which could result in the suspension of their licence. Currently in Australia, only WA has an exemption to mandatory reporting laws that stipulate any doctor who treats another doctor for mental illness must report them to the medical board or risk their own licence.

As I said, the time has come to do the right thing by doctors for their sakes and for the sakes of our patients. There are some stressors in medicine that aren’t ever going to go away; the life and death of some of our days, emergencies will always happen in the middle of the night, shift work, training and so on. It’s entirely reasonable to help us develop skills that allow us to cope with those times and to be resilient.

The other side of this equation are the things we can do something about. These are things like bullying or safe rostering. I recently saw on Twitter a redacted letter to doctors working night shift that they were ‘not being paid to sleep’ so for them to catch a ten minute nap to refresh was being outlawed. That kind of fare is not appropriate, not safe and not at all humane. Likewise with mandatory reporting laws; they serve no purpose other than to isolate those who need help even further and they should be repealed without delay.

Being a doctor is the greatest profession and I am obviously biased but it is a great privilege and a fulfilling job. However, we need to take better care of our carers and today I hope that everyone who can make a doctors day better or worse does so.

To learn more, visit Crazy Socks for Docs

Doctors cry too: when grief hits the operating theatre


I was recently given the unsolicited advice to keep my emotional distance in my job because it protects. I couldn’t disagree more; when you stop feeling, you stop caring and caring is the most important thing we do in medicine.

I have lost count of the many times I have looked into the eyes of family members, taken a deep breath, then delivered a savage blow. I don’t say I’ve lost count to be flippant, I say it because it is a devastating side effect of my job as a heart surgeon. 


‘We did everything we could, but I’m so sorry, he didn’t make it.’


The reactions from that point on almost always involve tears. Sometimes there are cries of disbelief, hoping that what I said wasn’t real. Some fall to the floor, others are stoic and fight tears. One family even threw a desk at me on one occasion. Grief may look different, but at its core, it is pain. 


One rainy Sunday, despite our gallant efforts, a very sick man finally succumbed to his sick heart. We kept him alive for five long days after a massive heart attack, with every machine known to medicine. Outside one of our private family rooms in the intensive care unit sat a trolley. A silver medical trolley was repurposed with bitter tea, cheap coffee and hospital biscuits marking the room where I was about to go and deliver the worst kind of news. The tea trolley in intensive care is synonymous with bad news. 


I tell them straight away because generally, they too know the significance of the tea trolley and I’m sure the expression on my face. They cry and hug each other, simultaneously trying to be strong. I take them back to his room in intensive care, through a corridor of machines that alarm and ping, keeping many others on the cusp of life and death.


In his room, he lays peacefully and as cliched as it sounds, to the untrained eye, he looks peacefully asleep. The family sings and pray, promising to lead a life that he would be proud of them for. They thank him for his years as a husband and father and know that he is in a better place. The tears that were just pricking at my eyes then roll down my cheeks, silently because I feel like an impostor with my grief. Open tears would just intrude on their loss that I do not feel entitled to share in. I retreat to the mercifully empty theatre locker room and put my head in my hands and sob. 


Heart surgery can be desperately serious, and death is an outcome that we are more familiar with than a lot of my colleagues in other specialties. Over the better part of twenty years, I have sat in rooms where hope has hung then swiftly been cut down by the bad news of death, imminent or realised. There are times when I think back at the names and faces of those whose lives have slipped away and I can’t do anything except cry for them. 


My pain will never be that of a wife or a partner, a daughter or even a neighbour. However, my pain is still real and at times, I wonder what a lifetime of seeing so much loss will do to me. Doctors have some of the highest rates of mental illness and suicidal thoughtsin the community. Research has shown that losing a patient or experiencing a complication can have a devastating toll on a surgeonwith guilt, anxiety, depression and using substances like alcohol to numb the pain. While it may seem that we carry on, with black humour, stoic realism or the odd tear, the loss of a patient has a lasting impact on us, at times haunting us. Despite perceptions that doctors can be detached and uncaring  it is really our ability to care that makes us better surgeons. 

If you were to add up the toll of a career of being exposed to challenging moments such as this, you may understand why. 


Doctors and other health care workers often talk about this need to be detached as a protective mechanism. We carry on our days as if nothing had happened, or resort to dark humour. What if we have been getting that wrong for so many years? A study of oncologists showed that burnout is increased when these doctors have a negative attitude to displaying emotion. Perhaps by removing that barrier to feeling, we show more compassion to our patients and ourselves. Sharing emotion after the death of a patient may help to battle burnout in doctors. The greatest purpose that it serves is to demonstrate our humanity to ourselves, to our colleagues and to each other.

A mentor once told me that the day you stop feeling that pain in the face of death, that is the day that you should find another job. Medicine and humanity are inextricably linked and if you lose that gut-wrenching pain that comes with sharing bad news, then you will have lost your humanity. You cannot possibly truly care about the people you need to help if you don’t truly feel agony for them.  


The next day presents new hope. A new chance to do what we could not for this man and so many others who slip away from us. At the end of that day, in the waiting room this time I get to deliver much better news.


‘Everything went well, her heart is working well, and you’ll be able to see her soon.’


Despite the traumatic events of pas days, these good days alleviate some of the hurt. 


Whatever happens in the hospital, whether it be amongst life-sustaining machines, under the lights of the operating theatre or in the emergency room, we are with you. We feel your pain and your joy in equal measure and both keep us toiling away. Healing on this occasion, helps not only you, but it helps me as well.  

Instagram is banning anti-vaccination hashtags, but it's not without risk

Flu arm HERO.jpg

The eradication of infectious diseases such as polio, small pox and more recently measles in 2000, is one of modern medicines greatest achievements. However, in the last few years, although once extinct, new life has been breathed into measles leading to epidemics popping up around the world. 


The World Health Organisation has cited the growth in people refusing to vaccinate themselves or their children as a key reason behind the spread of highly contagious diseases and a public health emergency. In recent months, we have seen epidemics pop up in New York, Australia and Europe happening in concert with rising vocal opposition to vaccination. 


Social media has become a place where the voices of people who have concerns around vaccinations can shout as loud as they want. And by doing so, they reach a captive audience of thousands or more, many of whom access these platforms to get health information. For young mothers, social media is a leading source of information around the decision to vaccinate.  


Platforms like Instagram offer a wealth of anti-vaccination information from aspirational young female ‘lifestyle influencers’ whose lifestyle and assertions of independence from oppressive medicine resonate. Even educated people, some with science backgrounds can communicate the idea that vaccines are dangerous and unnecessary. Influencers tap into people’s legitimate concerns and questions, say they have done their ‘research’ which usually amounts to reading disproven theories and misinterpreting science often from unreliable sources. 


Instagram has taken the necessary step to damp down anti-vaccination hashtags from the platform in a move that has been applauded by many, myself included. This follows on from previous decisions by social media giants such as Tumblr, Pinterest and Instagram to ban the spread of information that encourages self-harm. Previously, social media has banned hashtags such as #thispiration, a hashtag used by some with eating disorders to promote it. 


There is no doubt we need to stop the spread of dangerous health information but by banning it, there is a risk of fanning the flames. Anti-vaccination sentiment can have an undertone of fear that may involve conspiracy theories or loss of autonomy. Silencing the opponents could reinforce the idea of being gagged and oppressed. In general, our society believes that free speech is not as important as the safety and wellbeing of the population at large. 


Debunking anti-vaccination sentiment is a challenging exercise. Even just by repeating the myth to be debunked, we risk familiarity which accidentally serves to reinforce the very idea we want to expose. We can provide huge amounts of information to support the safety and efficacy of vaccinations, and yet pervasive ideas still persist. The original MMR-autism study published in The Lancet by disgraced and deregistered doctor Andrew Wakefield was discredited as a lie and has spurned many more research studies that have shown there is no link. And yet, confirmation bias and anecdotes keep people believing that the medical community is delivering lies and danger with each and every needle. 


The likelihood of changing the minds of absolute believers in the dangers or conspiracies of vaccination is close to zero. What we must focus on are the people who are on the fence, who feel torn between two worlds; one of science and one of tribalism with vocal vaccine deniers. These are the people that may change their minds and they are also the people who are the most vulnerable to dangerous messages. Reducing their exposure to anti-vaccination communication may help some and for that reason, it’s important.


Vaccination discussion online can prompt incredibly emotive responses.  Just posting a picture of me getting my flu vaccine on Instagram has resulted in some incredible online vitriol. The move to limit the fall out to vulnerable people is absolutely necessary, but we must be aware of the possible backlash and strengthening of the arguments of dogmatists against this vital tool in modern medicine. 


People who explore the vast platform of Instagram or anywhere else for that matter, are not bad people. Quite to the contrary, they genuinely want the very best for themselves and their children. Bans on Instagram are one tool, an important one, but we must not disregard the importance of compassion and curiosity in debunking anti-vaccination sentiment. We need to be on the same team not just engaging in war.

Choosing a diet for cancer is understandable, but preying on the vulnerable is not

When I tell someone, ‘you have cancer’, I know that will change someone’s life irrevocably. Cancer will touch the lives of many of us, and in that moment there’s probably not much we wouldn’t do.

Recently, there seems to be an explosion of people seeking cancer treatments outside of the traditional wares of a hospital. Many cancer centres now offer yoga, massage or acupuncture to round out the medical treatment.  Research has estimated that between 48 and 88 per cent of people with cancer use complementary therapy. 

This is the start of something more insidious emerging. There is an ever-growing number of books, influencers and self-proclaimed experts claiming to make you ‘cancer free’ with just the food you eat. 

Diets promising to improve health are becoming common and an integral part of the complementary therapy/anti-medicine crusade. There are dozens of books claiming to be ‘anti-cancer’, ‘the only answer to cancer’ or promising to fight cancer with smoothies or ‘instinct based medicine’. On Amazon, bestselling books on cancer are largely diets to beat cancer.

Cancer is complex collection of hundreds of illnesses, which can vary widely from one person to another and generally result from a combination of our genes and a wide variety of things we’re exposed to in our life. There is some link between diet and cancer. A diet rich in fruit, vegetables and wholegrains does seem to prevent some cancer, and bowel cancer is an example of where a diet-cancer link is strong. This kind of diet can decrease breast and bowel cancer by as much 60—70%. 

When it comes to actually treating cancer, the scientific evidence falls away. Despite promises of various components in foods to fight cancer, none have come to fruition. Despite this, 30-60% of breast cancer patients change their diet to include less fat, sugar and meat, obviously not necessarily a bad thing. Many others choose to have vitamins or other supplements, some under the belief that it will cure them. Some decline medical therapy instead of this altogether.

The stories of people who have ‘beaten’ cancer with diet are dramatic. Some claim to have had late stage cancer which ‘melted away’ by following an anti-cancer diet. This is at best, a form of confirmation bias; many of these people are undergoing proven medical treatment but any success is attributed to the diet, not the cutting-edge therapy that is available for many types of cancers nowadays. At worst, these stories may be completely false.


We are beginning to understand just how deadly using complementary therapies in cancer can be. Research published in JAMA Oncology in 2018 showed that the more someone used complementary therapies for cancer, the less they agreed to take usual treatment such as chemotherapy. This translated into loss of life; overall, those who eschewed conventional therapy were twice as likely to die of their disease. 


In the ultimate cautionary tale, disgraced Australian wellness entrepreneur Belle Gibson built an empire when she claimed to have cured her brain cancer through diet. She parlayed this successful Instagram account into an app by Apple to launch the Apple Watch and a now-defunct cookbook called ‘The Whole Pantry’. When Gibson was uncovered as a fraud with no cancer to speak of, her empire crumbled, taking down with it her publisher who failed to do their due diligence and confirm her story. She was convicted of fraud for withholding charity contributions and to this day, still has not paid a cent of her reparations. 

At the same time, self-styled ‘wellness warrior’ Jess AInsclough also declined medical therapy for her cancer, opting for diet instead. Reportedly, in the terminal stage of her disease, Ainsclough accepted radiotherapy but by then it was too late and she died at age 30.

The worst part about Gibson’s story is the many people who put their faith in her. Stories of people who followed the Gibson’s of the world and turned their backs on chemotherapy pop up in the media from time to time. By following these charlatans, people quite literally put their lives at risk.

Belle Gibson was ousted as a fraud and was fined by a Victorian court although she is yet to pay any, according to media reports. (Credit: Australian Women’s Weekly)

Belle Gibson was ousted as a fraud and was fined by a Victorian court although she is yet to pay any, according to media reports. (Credit: Australian Women’s Weekly)

Unhappily, these stories have not turned people away from their pursuit of diet to cure cancer. Where Gibson once stood, many others follow. Some are even physicians, operating outside of the accepted science that governs their profession, playing an incredibly dangerous game by giving their erroneous claims substance, hiding behind their ‘MD’.


Ireland tabled a bill in parliament in 2018 to enable those who peddle ineffective and dangerous treatments for cancer punished. And it is this kind of hard-line approach that may well be needed to stop vulnerable patients and their families being exploited by people who in essence, are dangerous. 

Pursuit of complementary therapy in cancer treatment is perfectly understandable. It is vital to enable the person’s active role and autonomy in their treatment and complementary therapy or diet is one way to do that. At the same time, patients with cancer are vulnerable and those who are selling books or diets off the back of that vulnerability exploit this either knowingly or otherwise. For social media, publishers and the mass media, we must stop giving air time to people who are praying on the vulnerable in their most desperate hour. People with cancer deserve our support, not to be victimised by quacks. 

Donelly & Toscano’s book ‘The Woman Who Fooled the World’ is a disturbing but necessary read.

Donelly & Toscano’s book ‘The Woman Who Fooled the World’ is a disturbing but necessary read.

Me Too and Time'sUp is long overdue for medicine

Is medicine ready for it’s #MeToo moment? (Stock photo)

Is medicine ready for it’s #MeToo moment? (Stock photo)

Becoming a doctor is a long, hard and expensive process – complete with unhuman work hours and the constant exposure to human suffering. 

 For women in medicine though, these difficulties can be compounded by the pervasive sexism that threatens the careers and wellbeing of female doctors. 

 Science magazine recently reported on the lawsuit filed by seven female and one male current and former employees of Mount Sinai Health System’s Icahn School of Medicine. The lawsuit accuses four senior men of sexism and ageism, with a list of claims such as e-mails referring to one woman as an idiot, along with frequent reference to female employees by disgusting curse words. This lawsuit is just the latest in a growing list of accusations levelled at the institution of medicine by female physicians around the world. At the beginning of the #MeToo movement, #MeTooMedicine was a testament to the almost universal experience of sexism amongst healthcare workers. 

 While lawsuits and dramatic public accusations are shocking, they fail to capture the insidious and almost inescapable nature of sexism and gender bias in medicine. The daily lived experience of a woman in medicine is often subject to biases and trials that add to an already challenging career. 

The Time’s Up movement has recently been joined by an official healthcare arm.

The Time’s Up movement has recently been joined by an official healthcare arm.

 Lawsuits do not act on the gender pay gap in medicine. They don’t explain the inequities in career progression between male and female doctors. It fails to report how a female surgeon, who has a patient death, will be punished with a drop in her referrals whereas a man won’t experience this. Lawsuits don’t encompass the daily microaggressions that a female doctor hears like the astonishment that she is the doctor or the way in which patients defer to the younger, more junior man over her even if she is the team leader. Just this weekend, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology was called out for asking nursing mothers with newborns to leave the conference hall. (ACOG since apologised and welcomed all parents with infants into the scientific sessions)

 While lawsuits like this are shocking, they are just a part of the constant sexism that women in medicine must endure. And endure they must because if you ever think of standing up to the harassment or the bias, your career will almost certainly suffer. In 2015, Australian vascular surgeon Dr Gabrielle McMullin publicly stated that female surgeons would be better off giving oral sex to aggressors rather than reporting them because standing up to your aggressors often leads to irreparable damage to your career.

Medicine is a noble profession, but it is also hierarchical and dominated by men with a culture that sees abuse not as illegal or damaging but as ‘character building’ and a necessary part of medical training. Perpetrators are often left in positions of power long after they have been given slaps on the wrist by management. Medicine’s belief in its decency is so strong and possibly misguided that it hampers our ability to look inwards and see that it is not fair, it is not always noble and when it comes to the treatment of women, it is wrong. 

Whether it be in the form of a Time’sUp movement, legal action or preferably, a self-directed long hard look at how gender plays out in our hospitals, it is long overdue. Medicine has long gone unnoticed too long for its deeply ingrained gender biases and this is an enormous mistake. Not only do we risk losing our best and brightest under the pressure of harassment, harassment in medicine is a patient safety issue. In workplaces where bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment exists, performance is affected an in healthcare, that performance puts lives at risk. 

I believe in the goodness of my profession, because I have seen it in practice. I have seen so many of my colleagues display compassion and kindness to our patients. I know that we care so deeply about the wellbeing of other people, we toil late into the night for the benefit of the people we are charged with caring for. Medicine needs to turn that compassion in on itself, honestly and end the insidious biases and far-too frequent harassment that plagues us. 

Cholesterol, fat and statins

This is the story that I shared on my Instagram stories for Mythbusting Monday. I’ve included some links and references for you at the end. Enjoy!

Welcome to the blog Mythbusters - this week’s topic was so huge, it needed a blog post to handle the information and share some important references and links for you.

Firstly, the basics. What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fatty acid that is essential to life. It forms the walls of our cells, some hormones (like androgens) and vitamin D. 

Cholesterol comes from two main sources. Firstly we manufacture it, through a series of enzymatic reactions mainly in the liver. Our bodies regulate cholesterol absorption through homeostasis - our bodies self-se-points. So if we eat more fatty acids and cholesterol, our own production should decrease. When levels get too low, we make more. 

Dietary sources tend to come from meat, eggs, fish oil and butter. This has been a point of contention over the years whether or not we should eat a diet low in cholesterol - when eggs were not cool. This is a huge topic itself and I won’t go into it here. 

Now being a fat, cholesterol can’t just cruise around in our blood. Imagine if you add oil to water - they don’t mix. Same with cholesterol in our blood. Cholesterol needs to be transported from the liver or the gut (or fatty tissues) packaged with proteins called ‘lipoporteins’

There are a number of types of lipoproteins: VLDL, LDL, IDL and HDL. I’m going to focus on two: HDL or high density lipoprotein also known as ‘good cholesterol’ and LDL or low-density lipoprotein, aka ‘bad cholesterol’

Let’s very quickly looks at HDL. 

  • Low levels of HDL are associated with increased heart disease

  • HDL cholesterol protects our vessels through multiple ways including removing cholesterol from the vessel wall where it causes damage, reducing inflammation, calming down platelets and improving the way we use glucose.

HDL = Heroine. 

Because LDL itself is a huge topic, I want to give you a bit of a summary here too:

  • We know that LDL is central to causing plaque and heart disease because of a combination of studies that show the higher the LDL, the more likely heart disease is

  • We also know that when we treat LDL cholesterol and make it go down (through medicines or through other means) that the risk of heart disease goes down

  • LDL is a small particle that easily gets into the walls of our vessels and causes plaques, damage, inflammation

LDL = villain

(And yes I know that simplification of LDL to bad and HDL to good is over simplification but I’m trying to distill complex topic to something digestible)

What causes high cholesterol? (And when I say hi cholesterol, I also mean high LDL and low HDL which is the perfect set-up for heart disease)

  • Obesity

  • Diet

  • Smoking

  • Inactivity

  • Genetics

  • Some other medical condition (hypothyroidism) and some medications

Now saturated fats. High fat diets are back in vogue as the always do from time to time. Proponents say that fats are not responsible for disease and carbohydrates are. Unfortunately, there are two things wrong with that statement.

First, it’s not entirely true.

Secondly, trying to distill down to disease to blame one macronutrient is a vast oversimplification of the science. And it over simplifies the fact that humans eat food, not nutrients. 

When it comes to fat in our diets, there is a lot of evidence that shows that saturated fatty acids are associated with increases in heart disease (found in meat etc). Unsaturated fatty acids seem to have some protective factors. Not all fats are created equal. 

Fats in milk for example, although saturated, seem to be protective. And what may be worse than the saturated fat is what you replace it with in your diet. So if you cut out all saturated fat (hard to do) and replace it with say trans fats (very bad) then things don’t look good. Replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fats seems to reduce the risk of heart disease. 

Now on to statins. Statins are medicines that stop our body from producing cholesterol by blocking one of the enzymes called HMG CoA Reductase. Previous cholesterol drugs blocked our gut uptake and weren’t as good. Statins also are anti-inflammatory, calm down platelets and have a number of other effects outside of lowing cholesterol.

There is a large amount of evidence to support the use of statins, but the benefits aren’t the same for everyone. For example, in elderly patients, they may not be as helpful as say in someone who has had a heart attack. Which is why saying ‘statins are bad’, blanket statement, doesn’t take into account everyone’s unique situation. 

The other problem with statins is harm and this is where the media have played out a number of quite frankly, shitty stories scaremongering on statins. 

Statins do have some side effects such as muscle soreness, liver enzyme rises and in rare cases muscle and liver damage. The risk of these are:

  • Serious liver issue 0.001%

  • Muscle soreness 10% (often easily treated by altering dose or changing statin)

  • Muscle damage <0.1%

  • Diabetes 0.2% per year (The diabetes one is tricky; lots of people who need statins can get diabetes anyway)

Incidentally my dad stopped his statin a few years ago because he read too many garbage stories on statins. He’s a smart guy, but he thought that the risks were much higher because of dramatisation in the media. 

Most of the less serious side effects for statins can be alleviated by changing to another statin, reducing the dose or changing to another drug altogether. If it makes anyone feel any better, I would take a statin in a heartbeat if I had to. And just to lay it out there, I am not in bed with big pharma, the laws in Australia are so strict I’d lose my job if I even took a pen from them. 

Statins should be started after consideration of an individual’s case with their own doctor AND in conjunction with lifestyle changes. Lifestyle changes can improve cholesterol but not usually as dramatically as a statin - lifestyle changes can be hard is one thing that causes that. 

The first recommendation in the treatment of cholesterol guidelines is not take pills, but rather a healthy lifestyle is the cornerstone for all people.

All in all - cholesterol denialism is not based on sound science, and the evidence to show that a diet high in fats, especially saturated fatty acids is good for us does not exist. In fact, the opposite is probably true. The dietary guidelines of most countries promote a diet high in vegetables, fruits and wholegrain, low in saturated fats and these are sound. 

Nutrition science is so complex and so anyone claiming to know everything about it is probably leading you astray. Science always evolves and that’s okay, it’s always good to improve. At the moment though, the safest bet is on cholesterol reduction. And statins are very important in the treatment and prevention of heart disease so if you ever need one (I hope you don’t) then please talk to your own doctor about your own individual situation. 

Links: - This is a great overview of the research behind cholesterol

Statin Safety and Associated Adverse Events: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association

Dietary Fat and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease: Recent Controversies and Advances

2016 European Guidelines on cardiovascular disease prevention in clinical practice

Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association.

Emerging nutrition science on fatty acids and cardiovascular disease: nutritionists' perspectives.

Low-density lipoproteins cause atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. 1. Evidence from genetic, epidemiologic, and clinical studies. A consensus statement from the European Atherosclerosis Society Consensus Panel.

Being a Catalyst for change

This Tuesday, I'm so excited that everyone will finally get to see Heartbeat: The Miracle Inside You on ABC Catalyst. The show, written and directed by documentary filmmaker Anna Broinowski, lets you follow me around the operating theatre, visiting patients and exploring some exciting new developments in the science of the heart. 

I spend a lot of time trying to get people excited about their hearts. Or more specifically, looking after their hearts. Many years ago, as a junior doctor, I got so drawn in by this magnificent organ that I committed my career to taking care of them. As a medical student, I was always going to be a surgeon, although at that time, I was going to be a plastic surgeon or an orthopaedic surgeon.

Women surgeons were uncommon when I was a fresh faced new doctor. And they still are. Women make up just under 10% of surgeons in Australia. While unconscious and systems biases still exist, I was lucky enough to be mentored by some incredible surgeons who were largely male and taught me to be a hard-working and highly skilled doctor. To me, it never crossed my mind that being female would hold me back. And with the support of my seniors and my own tenacity, it didn't. My gender is the least interesting part of who I am and what I do.

When I was given a rotation in cardiothoracic surgery, at Royal Perth Hospital, it was hard not to get sucked in to the beauty of everything that is held in by our rib cage. Our hearts and lungs are so incredibly clever, so strong and yet, I was beginning to understand how fragile they could be. I think one of the turning points came for me when I went to visit a lung transplant patient in ICU and I asked him how he felt. He looked at me and said "you have no idea how good is to be able to breathe." That right there, took my own breath away.

I never left heart surgery, and finished my specialist training to become a cardiothoracic surgeon after many years training, including getting extra training in transplant surgery and congenital & paediatric heart surgery. While staring at hearts is now very normal for me, I can honestly say that I never ceased to be amazed by what our hearts can do. 

Despite their brilliance, hearts get sick. Sometimes we're born with problems in our hearts. In fact, every day in Australia, eight babies are born with a heart problem. Sometimes, it happens out of the blue in fit and healthy men and women. Sometimes, our hearts pay the price for what we do to them, like smoking or inactivity. And that's where we come in. A huge team of doctors, nurses and allied health professionals that I am lucky enough to call my colleagues are ready to help however we can.

Heart surgery and medicine in general is truly excellent. We are always pushing though to work out ways to tackle diseases of the heart in ways that are better, safer and more effective for patients. In an ideal world however, we'd get in long before you needed to be on an operating table. 

It's my hope that we can all get better at taking care of our hearts. Whether it be breaking the code for the genes that cause heart disease in children, or developing even better mechanical hearts, I am so excited at where the future of our hearts is taking us. As part of Catalyst, I was lucky enough to meet some amazing scientists who are doing just that. From Prof Sally Dunwoodie and Prof Robert Graham at the Victor Chang Institute to Professor Stuart Grieve at University of Sydney, these tireless researchers are helping make a future for our hearts brighter than ever before. 

As I said, I don't usually get to meet this wonderful minds. While I call them colleagues, they're the ones doing the hard yards behind the scene, sometimes over many many years to get a breakthrough that will help hearts everywhere. At the end of that process, I get to be the lucky doctor who uses their hard work, sometimes to save a life. 

All in all, it's inspirational. And that's what I hope you all see from Catalyst this week. But rather than just be in awe of the clever scientists, the brave patients or our wonderful heart team, think about how wonderful you are. Because on the inside, you have this incredibly beautiful pump that starts beating before you're born and never stops until the day you die. It's such an amazing thing that we all have and I hope that this inspires many more of us to look after it in the way it deserves.

Just a small part of our heart surgery team you can see this week on Catalyst. Picture: ABC

Just a small part of our heart surgery team you can see this week on Catalyst. Picture: ABC

Day of the Girl


Day of the Girl. Sounds like a Terminator film title. 'Day of the Girl: Rise of the Ovaries'. Now, as you may have guessed, I spend quite a bit of my time thinking about, talking about and trying to improve gender equality in my little chunk of the world. I want the girls and women I come into contact with to see what they can do but also how it happens. I want to show them my flaws and mistakes so that they might learn from them. I want to create a collective voice that stands for all women reaching their goals, living a life where they can see their potential and fulfil their needs. I want women to have choice.

I grew up not really understanding that gender is a barrier. I never knew that because I was born a girl, that some people would see that as a weakness. I never understood that my intelligence would be both questioned and somehow demeaned if I was not pretty. And I definitely did not appreciate that even in a modern time, I would be required to work twice as hard as some of my male counterparts and I would be judged much more harshly for behaviours considered normal for boys but unbecoming of girls.

That being said, I am a middle class white woman. I am educated and I had a safe home with good role models in my life, some male and some female. I was not shot in the head for going to school, I was free to marry who I chose and I was free to do things in life that others might take for granted, like walking alone into the city. When I was born, my birth was celebrated not mourned. In fact, I was born when many girls are never given that chance when fetacide still occurs.

October 11 was declared by the UN to be International Day of the Girl Child in 2011. It aims to promote leadership and change so that girls around the world can lead full and safe lives. The very important message that we need to take from this day is that when we nurture and educate our girls, our whole communities improve. Health and welfare improves and violence abates.

I am very proud of what I have done in my life. Being a woman is a gift and I hope that I can use that to inspire and mentor those around me. It's a tough gig sometimes but we are tough and resilient and resourceful. However, today, I want to take a moment to be thankful for the great opportunities I have had and mindful of those that others do not. It is so vital that for us girls and women who have privilege and a voice that we fight for girls everywhere.

Happy International Day of the Girl x

#ILookLikeASurgeon but that's not all I am


My fellow tweeting-surgeon-friend, ENT surgeon Dr Eric Levi, tweeted these two thought provoking messages today.

There were lots of replies. A few identified with the fact that medicine is not 'just a job' but a vocation, a calling and defines who we are. Some talked about the importance of having hobbies outside of medicine. Others talked about leaving medicine and how scary that can be. It seems that Dr Levi hit a sore spot. He certainly did for me.

I like to think that in my daily dealings with life's big moments such as death, survival, fear, anger and caring for another human that I have learned what is really important in life. I have. I know that a wife desperately wants to see her husband get better after a long hospital stay. I know the raw emotion when a mother passes away. I know the sound of elation, relief and thankfulness when things have gone well. Yet, in putting that into practice, like many of my colleagues, I have fallen short of the mark.

Last year, I read the phenomenal book by neurosurgeon Dr Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air. Paul was just about to complete his neurosurgical residency when at the young age of 35, he was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer. Paul wrote the book as he battled this horrendous disease which ultimately took his life. I read it as a doctor who deal with lung cancer but also as a doctor who like Paul, had given up so much to pursue this 'calling'.

As I read about Paul's life and career, I found it echoed my own and that of many of my colleagues and friends. Upon diagnosis, he wanted to get back to work until the realisation dawned upon him that life was not the many hours spent in the operating theatres. While I was so sad that this young man lost his life to an aggressive cancer, what also saddened me was that why had it taken such a crisis to cultivate appreciation for what truly matters?

I have struggled with my own identity as a surgeon first and everything else second. One thing I can say without hesitation is that is the wrong way around. Surgery is indeed a vocation. Medicine is a calling. It is not something you do when you have luke warm feelings about it. It is not however, all of who I am. It is not even the most important part of who I am nor of my life.

Recently, a patient about to undergo a major cardiac operation had a wedding in the hospital. It was love that mattered. And that is exactly what matters and defines us, not our occupations. It is the love of your spouse, family, children and friends that is who you are. It is the things you love to do with your time whether that be watching the sun rise, long runs on the weekend or a nice glass of red wine that matter. For all the times I got my priorities and identity backwards, I am sorry. I am sorry for those who fell down the ranking and I am sorry for myself.

I do look like a surgeon and I am a surgeon. A surgeon though, is not all that I am nor all that I want to be. I want other facets to my career and I want the important people and experiences in my life. I want to cultivate a life that is not made up of sutures and blood and ward rounds. And I want to share that life with the people who mean the most to me.

So to answer Eric's proposition, who would we be if our careers were taken or perhaps freely given? We would be just fine.

Practice "kindfulness"

I met a delightful colleague recently who introduced me her term 'kindfulness' which I immediately fell in love with. Her idea that so much toxic culture and therefore toxic outcomes results from a failure of kindness, both towards ourselves and towards others. She advocates for the widespread, indiscriminate practice of kindfulness.

"All I know is that my life is better when I assume people are doing their best" - Brene Brown, Rising Strong

I thought about what she said and realised how much truth there was in this. We are geared up to think that people are doing their worst, that we are doing less than our best. We have become so judgemental and focussed on evaluating and critiquing what everyone else is doing. All this is breeding is toxicity. We judge ourselves for not going to the gym or doing the washing and then berate ourselves to the point where we equate not meeting a task as a reflection on the very fabric of who we are. We missed a workout or didn't make the bed snowballs into 'I am an inadequate person'.

Likewise with those around us. The guy who cuts in front of us on the motorway is an idiot and can't drive. The coworker who constantly leaves early is lazy and useless. It becomes so much a part of our moment to moment conversation, thinking and perceptions that everyone around is not living up to some imaginary standards. Their behaviour escalates into a reflection of all of their behaviour and then everyone else's and as a consequence, we do not bother to show them any kindness or compassion.

It may not come as a surprise that doctors are a competitive bunch but we're also tribal. Surgeons hang with surgeons, physicians with physicians and so on. The tribalistic behaviour has given rise to some hilarious jokes and stereotypes. Such as my personal favourite, what's the difference between God and a cardiac surgeon? God doesn't think he's a cardiac surgeon. (Boom tish) These jokes are a reflection of how we judge each other without compassion, kindness or understanding and say all heart surgeons are arrogant, all orthopaedic surgeons are dumb, another specialty is useless at something and the list goes on.

What these jokes, then stereotypes and harsh judgements actually foster is an inability to be kind to each other at times. And when we can't be kind, we get judgemental. When we get judgemental, we get frustrated, angry or aggressive and significantly less tolerant of others, their behaviours, their flaws and even their successes.

Being kind to ourselves and each other is not just about cultivating the manners our grandmothers spoke of. Being kind and compassionate to ourselves and to each other is good for mental and physical health. Training people to be more compassionate increases their well being, alleviates anxiety and improves their ability positively contribute in a social setting. Being kind to others also increases a sense of self-kindness and wellbeing about oneself. We can happily teach people to be kind and compassionate and in the school setting, this can have positive effects on school safety and development of young minds.

At work, where we are subjected to sometimes long hours of toxic culture, being kind is the correct antidote that we should be using. Showing compassion to others difficulties, whether they be in the office or outside of it increase a sense of well being and therefore productivity. Workplaces that are rife with bullying see an increase in the number of sick days taken and employee turnover, not to mention the development of depression and anxiety in those subject to bad behaviour. Self-compassion is associated with less burnout and anxiety at work, all good for the office but also good for the humans involved.

Kindness is not about being a door mat or standing for poor behaviour, performance or systems; letting that slide is probably going to make you feel worse about yourself and more resentful towards that person and therefore less likely to be kind to them. But perhaps we need to stop confusing strength and aggression and vice versa.

It's fairly safe to say that what we're doing to ourselves and each other isn't exactly working, with rates of burnout, depression and anxiety much higher than most people feel comfortable with. Toxic workplaces are miserable and road rage is a term that is now part of the modern vernacular. So let's try something different. When someone cuts you off, when someone forgets to do their work or when you have a burger instead of a salad, be kind. Notice it, give them and yourselves a break and carry on.

Or even better, practice 'kindfulness' actively. Smile at the person opposite you on the train, wish the barista a good day when you get your morning coffee or offer some help to someone who looks like they might need it. It's not a massive amount to ask and the dividends may be great.


Do as I say, not as I do

"Picture me standing on a floor made entirely of glass. If something good happened to me, or if I had a good day with a friend or family, the glass I was standing on would become a bit thicker, meaning that my resolve was stronger and I was less brittle. But if something bad happened, or if I had a setback, cracks would start to appear in the glass. If those cracks ever became numerous enough, the glass floor would shatter and I would fall" - Jerome Doraisamy, The Wellness Doctrines

I have written about mental health (or lack thereof) in doctors on several occasions. The upcoming week or so has two very significant events for mental health. Firstly, September 8 is R U Ok? Day, a day that we are encouraged to ask the people around us if they are doing okay and if they're not, act on it. Secondly, the AMA(WA) Doctors In Training Wellbeing sub-committee has a symposium coming up on how we can facilitate keeping our doctors well and help those who aren't overcome their difficulties.

Depression, anxiety and suicide in doctors is rife. US data suggests that 400 doctors per year commit suicide which is the equivalent of losing an entire medical school every twelve months. Beyond Blue has determined that the risk of depression and suicidal ideation is much higher than that of the general community and higher than other professionals. Doctors face an enormous amount of stigma if they suffer, especially openly from the public and their colleagues alike. Despite existing to fight disease, doctors are blind, ignorant or dismissive of this disease in themselves and in their colleagues.

The factors contributing to poor mental health in doctors are numerous. Obviously, a number of doctors who experience depression have pre-existing traits, genes or personality structure that sees them prone to this. When we add into this equation the incredible stress faced by doctors, it's hardly any wonder. I personally feel like the stress in medicine is increasing, despite the fact that as a registrar, I worked many less hours than my most senior boss, who trained 20+ years before me.

Doctors are now faced with new and difficult stressors including an increasingly competitive training environment, layers of bureaucracy and unnecessary paperwork and exposure to increasingly sicker patients. This in addition to the 'run of the mill' stress of long hours, social isolation, long training times as a specialist, relocation, personal cost of training to name just a handful. While hospitals and specialty colleges are offering access to support services such as counselling and moving to combat stressors like bullying, this in itself is not enough.

Most of us do actually realise the significance of these major bodies coming out and saying 'we understand you need support from time to time' but we are doing very little to prevent mental illness, target stigma and facilitate meaningful recovery.

A doctor admitting they are unwell is still such an incredible taboo and can be an enormous barrier to seeking help in a timely fashion. There is the ever present threat of having conditions placed on your practice by the Medical Board and having your colleagues be made aware that you are not up to scratch.

Prevention of mental health by truly taking steps to reduce the common stressors in the life of doctors is also an area that needs improvement. Access to part-time or interrupted training may be beneficial to those who are unwell but do not want to leave their training program. Truly developing no tolerance policies when it comes to bullying hospital-wide, not just in surgical circles may relieve some of the stress experienced by our doctors. Successful implantation of wellness programs have taken place in Stanford General Surgery in the USA where surgical residents are given time to go outside, play games and generally destress.

Finally, as a profession that strongly identifies themselves as their vocation, facilitating return to work programs and allowing time off and other access to mental health professionals and programs can help validate the doctor as useful contributor, even in the face of their illness.

The irony of all of this is that whenever I see a patient who to me, is depressed, I have no problems being a compassionate listener and offering the help that they need. As do my colleagues. Doctors, ourselves, prefer to live in a 'Do as I say, not as I do' fashion. While we stand silently and let ourselves, our friends and our colleagues be consumed by illness, we fail to offer the help we vowed to take. We also fail to stand side by side with those who need it and let them know that they are not alone and that things can get better.

Nobody really wants to suffer in shame and silence. And so, this Thursday, ask those around you if they are okay. And take steps to be a loud voice for you and everyone around you and demand that as a profession, we start taking care of each other in the same manner we take care of our patients. Mental illness is not shameful, no matter who you are. It's time that doctors start to take proper care of themselves and for those around us to say that it's okay to need a little looking after.

Are doctors really sick of their jobs?

I came across this interesting article, shared by excellent podcast The Doctor Paradox. Published in the Wall Street Journal online, the article alerts readers to a very real problem for the profession and the people it lives to serve.

Today medicine is just another profession, and doctors have become like everybody else: insecure, discontented and anxious about the future. In surveys, a majority of doctors express diminished enthusiasm for medicine and say they would discourage a friend or family member from entering the profession. - Wall Street Journal

The article very nicely pinpoints several issues that are perpetuating this disillusionment within the profession. A feeling of being under-valued by society and our governing bodies or employers, a never ending stream of bureaucracy and paperwork linked to that and most worryingly, impacts on patient care.

Despite concerns about income, autonomy and professional satisfaction being a part of this problem, doctors are by and large, quite altruistic people. We hate seeing our patients short changed by an increasingly burdened health care system. And we hate that the burdens being forced upon us are passed along to patients. For example, the WSJ article speaks about administrative tasks directly diminishing patient contact time. In Australia, we have concerns over government funding of health care that will lead to a passing on of costs to vulnerable patients. Our profession exists to serve people. And it is a service we glean much satisfaction from. IMG_6504

That being said, it is time to take this problem seriously. These days, we are trying to make sure everyone feels valued but doctors seem to be getting a slightly different message. The implications for our society as a whole are great if this intense job dissatisfaction continues.

The profession obviously needs to look inwards at itself to see what it is doing to aid such disillusionment. Factors in the workplace such as bullying and discrimination, lack of flexible training options or high degrees of mental stress will not only tarnish our existing doctors but word will get out and we will lose the best and brightest to come other profession. Despite what many of my senior colleagues have said about 'quitters' over the years, this is not weeding out the weak. This is our great loss and society's great loss.

During tough times in our lives, my fellow surgeons often turn to surgical training as a yardstick. 'If you made it through surgical training, you can make it through this'. And 'this' can take many forms; relationship breakdowns, deaths, financial troubles and so on.  Becoming a surgeon should not be used as the yardstick by which we measure all of life's problems.

As a profession we also need to take charge of our destiny. Take a look at the great efforts by the doctors of the NHS in the junior doctor dispute. They came together as one profession and said that they were no longer going to be taken for granted and most certainly, they were not going to put their patients at risk for the sake of politics. Health systems the world over have a lot to learn from this dispute.

Perhaps the most serious downside, however, is that unhappy doctors make for unhappy patients. Patients today are increasingly disenchanted with a medical system that is often indifferent to their needs. - Wall Street Journal

We are altruistic and we do care about our patients. We also care about ourselves and our own families and the extraordinary sacrifices we have made for our profession and our patients. The fact that we are not alarmed as a society by the breaking of our health care workers is a sad indictment on our approach to modern life.

Our medical students and young doctors need to be mentored authentically to demonstrate professionalism but also learn about career planning and self-care. We should examine our training processes to ensure that we are doing everything we can to retain people even if that means moving away from trying to break our trainees. And lastly, the profession needs to bring our goals together and ensure that we have a strong hand in shaping a system that works for patients and doctors alike.

Our system is approaching breaking point and the dedicated health care workers from all fields who prop it up won't be able to for too much longer. So now is the time for action to sustain our health care system into a long and caring future.

Critics, courage and compassion


"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat." - Theodore Roosevelt

We would all like to describe ourselves as strong, tough or resilient. We would like to think that when life gives us lemons, not only do we make lemonade, we do it with fortitude. We look the problem in the eye and we go for it. We take no crap and suffer no fools. And in the end, the triumph is ours.

I have been reading the most fantastic book recently, 'Rising Strong' by Brene Brown. In it, social worker and PhD researcher Brown talks about the value of vulnerability in strength and overcoming adversity in life. In both the big moments and the day-to-day hiccups. The crux of Brown's approach is exactly as Roosevelt states. Courage is not winning, courage is 'being in the arena', it's dusting yourself off and starting again. It's turning up even when you've been beaten down.

The concept of strength to me has always been that typical Type A response. Attacking the problem head on with huge amounts of gusto. Now though, I think that most of human achievement actually comes from the moments in the arena. It comes from the moments when we have to show faith or hope or vulnerability. That kind of exposure of yourself is much greater than the exposure of grabbing a bull by the horns.

"Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome" - Brene Brown, Rising Strong

The concept of strength being about brute force rather than the gentler vulnerability and quiet, persistent courage is a barrier to real happiness and real success, both personally and professionally.

It is the falling short of our need to win that creates a dangerous workplace culture when we take our shame and frustrations on someone with less power than us. It stops us from seeing what our emotions truly tell us that we want. It stops us from asking for what we need and want in life. It's the pride that lands us in more trouble when we don't ask for help. It's the isolation from our family and friends when we don't communicate what really matters to us.

The real strength lies in compassion. Compassion for ourselves and the hurt that we experience. Compassion for others so that we might see that they are trying their hardest or are imperfect, even when they fall short. Their best may not be our best or even in our best interests, but when we look at what has happened with compassion, life is a little easier. And rather than pure anger or some other Type-A response, we can grow ourselves and maybe even help with the growth of others.

I wish I had known more about just being in the arena before now. About the power of vulnerability and compassion. I think it may have made me a better person, a better partner, a better friend and a better doctor. In our society, we might earn to grow together if we start seeing the world not in terms of winning or losing but of the power of showing up and being real. We can act from a place of authenticity and integrity and I don't know about you, but I think that will definitely help me sleep at night.

Generation gap or Generation chasm?

Gap (noun) A break or hole in an object or between two objects:he peeped through the gap in the curtains

1. A pass or way through a range of hills:
2. A space or interval; a break in continuity:there are many gaps in our understanding of what happened
3. A difference, especially an undesirable one, between two views or situations:the media were bridging the gap between government and people
It is entirely natural for each generation to differ from each other. Each generation is subject to different social, spiritual, political or financial pressures. This is what we would commonly refer to as a generation gap. It is a difference in opinion between the politics, beliefs and values of two generations.
Chasm (noun):
1. A deep fissure in the earth’s surface:a chasm a mile longfigurative he was engulfed in a chasm of despair
2. A profound difference between people, viewpoints, feelings, etc.the chasm between rich and poor
The forces acting on a generation vary widely, with crises such as war, recessions or great political unrest acting on people to shape their views and values. For example, war time was a great definer of 'The Great Generation' who are World War II veterans where political and financial uncertainty defined these people. Compared with their offspring, the Baby Boomers, who compared to their parents, grew up in a time of relative stability and financial security. No two generations have the same experiences and this is therefore reflected in their outlook on the world.
Here in Australia, the generation gap between Baby Boomers and Gen X/Y/Millenials is getting a great deal of attention, especially in an election year from young voters. As around the western world, there is a great deal of thinking about how Gen Y has found itself in a precarious position as a side effect of the successes of the Baby Boomers. Specifically, Gen Y members may be bringing up the rear when it comes to housing affordability, employment opportunities. In addition to this, the sheer number of ageing Baby Boomers who will be reliant on public services such as health in the future will lead to very significant financial strains on the population.
Unsurprisingly, the perceived face off between Baby Boomers and Gen Y is somewhat controversial. As expected, it's not too hard to find a Baby Boomer who feels that Gen Y are a bunch of lazy, entitled brats who enjoy nothing more than complaining. Likewise, Gen Y may be tired of being dictated to by conservative and selfish leaders who have no interest in the opinions of the younger folk. And no more now in Australia. Aside from concerns over housing prices, lack of job security or personal wealth, the current federal election has seen many younger voters feel entirely disenfranchised by a system that does nothing to help us achieve our goals, as the Baby Boomers have been able to do.
The workplace is a fertile battle ground for the inter-generation war. Baby Boomers hold positions of power at many of the organisations that Gen X/Y/Millenials are employed at. The workforce is ageing, leaving many younger people without jobs that they have trained for; graduate unemployment is at an all time high in this country. Baby Boomers value experience and graduated climb up the corporate ladder; Gen Y want to be recognised in a kind of meritocracy where ideas matter, not length of service. Baby Boomers were a generation of long work hours and immense personal sacrifice while Gen Y value hard work, but also value personal or family time. Ageism exists in the reverse also, with older workers struggling to get back into the workforce. You could not have two more different groups, trying to work together.
The friction created can be immense. The battle cry of the Baby Boomer, 'They're nothing like us' is both right and wrong at the same time. No, we are not like you. As Baby Boomers were not like their parents' generation either. But that does not mean that we don't want the same things. We want job satisfaction, we want appropriate renumeration and recognition for our work. We want to achieve and do a good job.
The similarities should get us to the table. The differences between the generational workforces should be embraced. Time Magazine, the New York Times and Forbes have all written on the generation gap at work and the common theme is this. We ALL have something to offer, something to learn from the other and we all have biases. Workplaces work better when we realise that although we may need and want individual recognition or advancement, we work together, not in isolation to a common end.
In this election year, our politicians seem to have forgotten the value in collaboration. With Gen Y having the ability to be the deciding vote, the lack of commitment to matters that are the heart of this generations concerns is short-sighted and selfish. This can be reflected in the unwillingness of Gen Y to even enrol to vote; it is not laziness but rather symptomatic of a widespread disillusionment with our elected 'leaders'. The values that matter to younger Australians barely get a mention. Housing affordability, refugees, environmental concerns, gender and race equity and marriage equality are back burner issues.
The generation gap is in my opinion, an understatement. The generation gap in the workplace is making an entire generation feel impotent as Baby Boomers hold on to the reins from it's 'lazy, greedy' successors. The generation chasm created in politics on serves to further disable young Australians to experience the fulfilment that Baby Boomers have had. Just as their parents thought them, Gen Y is not like the Baby Boomers and not in a good way. It is long past due that Australians, not generations, work together to create some equity between generations and create a stable future for all Australians.

Professional women’s groups: whingers or winners?

1404169321963.jpg-620x349 At a recent gathering of colleagues, we were discussing the upcoming meeting of a women in surgery craft group. A few said they would be attending, some could not but one voice said something I wasn't exactly expecting. A similarly aged female colleague said 'I never go. It's just a room full of whinging women'.

This isn't the first time I've heard someone say this and certainly not the first woman I've heard say this. I have to be honest, it always shocks me a little. Although my surgical workplace remains a male-dominated field, some women have better experiences than others, some a lot worse. However, using the term whinging implies that those bad experiences are being blown out of proportion or imagined.

The bold statement that implied women’s craft groups are nothing more than a group vent made me think, are they really relevant or are we just whinging?

Surgery is not alone in the presence of female-orientated craft groups. Virtually all professions where men have traditionally held those positions have one or more. Women in Surgery, Women in Media, Women in Engineering, Women in STEM, Women in Law,Women in Aviation and even the defence force has a section dedicated to encouraging women into their ranks. On numbers alone, you would have to imagine that these organisations must exist for a reason and do function in a positive manner.

In these diverse fields, women are particularly underrepresented, especially at the higher echelons. Women make up around 10% of surgeons and in a very public investigations, around half of women in the field reported some form of bullying. Others reported discrimination and sexual harassment. Only three women have been appointed to the Supreme Court, loss of women in STEM during their 30’s and 40’s sees them underrepresented at higher academic appointments and across the board, difficulties with breastfeeding, parental leave or career progression are common.

Strength in numbers is so useful to women who may want guidance or mentoring. It is great to be validated by someone else in a similar position that the problems or successes you experience are not just limited to you. You are not alone. Women’s professional groups have the ability to share advice and offer support. At the risk of sounding a little but of a hippy, at the very least, within these groups a safe space can exist to share some of the not-so-good times.

They can explain how they manage child care with work, or how to make a workplace breastfeeding friendly. They can share advice on how to break the good old glass ceiling and support, mentor and facilitate the advancement of women through their ranks. Personally, I think they are an excellent resource to network, mentor, support and even socialise.

Women’s professional groups do have some distinct advantages for their members. This includes locating a mentor that the mentee can identify with, providing both guidance and inspiration in navigating the workplace. When used appropriately, this can be of great advantage in an increasingly competitive workplace where connections matter. These groups often advise overseeing professional bodies on matters that effect everyone including workforce diversity or flexible working hours and leave policies. Whether you be male or female, member or not, a lot of positive improvements in the workplace have come as a direct result of the influence of professional women’s groups.

That’s not to say that these groups sometimes underperform. Especially in workplaces where gender equality is not as advanced, these meetings can indeed have a tendency to become all about venting the problems we all encounter. In addition, just by existing or having a large group, that in itself won’t change systems weaknesses or unconscious biases. Women’s professional groups also have to develop achievable action plans that can actually perform at work.

Professional women are also very adept at keeping their heads down, so as not to create any trouble that might hamper their career. Associating yourself with your women’s section may wrongly identify you as a feminist, troublemaker or ‘humourless bitch’. Regardless of the fact that we have every right to have our concerns heard and changes made. Nobody wants to be seen as a troublemaker and troublemakers are at risk of not being employed or looked over for promotions. Whether it is true or just, women’s professional groups can indeed seem a little scary to those of us who are just trying to survive.

That being said, I don’t think that we should stop voicing our concerns. Perhaps a meeting of women in surgery or engineering or any other group is full of ‘whinging’ because we have along way to go. It may be a sign of disempowerment of women as individuals at work, in society or as a group as a whole.

I don’t buy into the philosophy that we should support other women, at all costs. The saying ‘there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women’ is just another way to exclude someone who may have a different opinion. We should support each other and not pull the ladder up behind us, however, disagreeing and having the tough conversations will only improve things for women. Nodding along with whatever is said, including the existence of women’s groups, can lead to us missing the important and uncomfortable topics that need attention. However, blanket labelling of feminists and women’s groups as ‘whingers’ belittles the experiences that some women have had at work.

I strongly believe it is important that these groups exist and continue to undertake the excellent work that they do, not just for women or its members, but for our entire workforce. A diverse workforce is without a doubt, a more efficient and productive workforce. Instead of choosing our doctors, lawyers or pilots from a proportion of the population, we get to pick them from the whole population. Imagine the talent we could discover!

It is also important that women’s professional associations do not become echo chambers of professional women listing the vast number of problems faced by them in the workplace. To be honest, I don’t think many just do that. They have absolutely been positive vehicles for change, not just for women but for entire professions. Continuing to use our collective voices, women’s professional groups can lead the way to create workplaces of the future that are inclusive, productive and successful.

Being a doctor is nothing like Grey's Anatomy: Part II


Just when you thought it was safe to turn on your TV...

Just when you thought your TV show had hired a medical consultant...

Just when your neighbours thought you had stopped yelling at the screen...

It's time for part II of 'Meredith Grey is not real life'.

House MD: Where are the nurses, allied health professionals and ward clerks?

I have already given House a hard time in my last article but considering it's a repeat offender, it deserves a repeat mention. Aside from the fact that House and his team of ultra-talented doctors appear to be the only physicians working at Princeton-Plainsborough, they are flying solo. The nurses portrayed in this series are not only few but they seem to only serve to give House dirty looks. Real life is much more diverse. We all work in multi-disciplinary teams where each professional brings a special set of skills. the nurse for example, may not do surgery, but equally luckily, the surgeon will not demonstrate physical therapy. It takes a village to heal a patient.

The book 'Blindsighted' by Karin Slaughter: Not everyone cracks a chest

In this series of books focussing on small town coroner/paediatrician where an unnerving number of murders take place, the drama seems to win out over accuracy. In the first book of the series, the protagonist opens a young woman's chest to give internal cardiac massage. Of course, she survives. TV shows, films or books often make it sound like we are all ready to give anything a go. In reality, doctors are not. We make calculated, educated decisions not just based on knowledge but our own skills and specialties. And when a situation is above our skill level, we call someone who knows what they're doing.

Every TV show/medical movie ever: If the supply closet is rocking, don't come knocking

Just no. There are rumours of hospital staff shall we say letting off steam, but most definitely not with the frequency of TV shows. If we were all at it as often as the doctors of Grey's Anatomy are, there would be no time to get work done.

Every TV show ever: We all hangout after work at the pub over the road from our major teaching hospital

Going back to this concept of time, we are tired. Most of us at the end of the day just want to go home, eat food that is not from the hospital cafeteria and sleep. Before you are a fully fledged specialist, we race home to study for specialist exams. Basically, we are boring and responsible. However, when the time does come, we do know how to have fun and hang out with the people you spend most of your life with.

Grey's Anatomy: Relationships with patients are frowned upon. Especially if they leave you a large inheritance.

Back to Izzy and her drive line cutting, doctors are held up to a very strict code of conduct and having a relationship with a patient is a major no-no. We are in a particularly privileged position, the patient in a very vulnerable position and these rules exist to protect the patient from being unduly influenced. In Australia, even receiving gifts from patients is subject to strict rules and require reporting of the gift to your hospital.

House MD & Grey's Anatomy: You can't be rude to patients or other staff and expect to get away with it

From the time Cristina Yang screwed up and organ donation request to every time Gregory House interacted with another human being, the tolerance for being rude is pretty low. Especially to patients, no matter what the circumstances.Patients (rightly) complain about doctors (or other staff who are rude to them) and increasingly, within the medical profession, we are becoming less tolerant of poor behaviour from our colleagues. Whatever the situation or reason, the patient suffers when behaviour is poor and that is just not okay.

Catch Me If You Can: I concur, you can't pretend to be a doctor.

Ironically, one of my favourite TV shows is Suits about a guy pretending to be a lawyer which I'm sure is pretty unlikely. Pretending to be a doctor would be tough. Even as a fully qualified doctor, any time you want to work somewhere or perform a new procedure, boards or committees scrutinise you very closely to ensure that you are who you say you are. Rocking up and nodding along sagely with a senior clinician will net you a trip to the police station.

Casino Royale: After a cardiac arrest, James Bond is back to saving the world

Mr Bond, it pains me to tell you off. Especially after that scene in that film. And you always get your man. But let me be clear here, people do not have a cardiac arrest, shock themselves (sort of) and then just clean up and carry on with their day. If you survive a cardiac arrest, you can be sure that you have booked yourself a hospital stay to find out what happened and how to stop it from happening again.

Heartbreakers: Melissa George was never covered in bone dust

To be fair, I have not yet watched Heartbreakers, based on real-life transplant surgeon and author Dr Kathy Magliato. In her interview about how she saw real-life heart surgery, George says that she was covered in bone dust after a tough day of scrubbing in. No she wasn't. I promise you, she wasn't. Heart surgeons in particular pride ourselves on being neat and tidy for one. Secondly the sternum opens without much fanfare at all. Maybe she was gunning for ratings? Either way, it's generally not as glamorous, dramatic or messy as TV and TV stars make it seem.

Tell me what else drives you mad - I'm sure there are hundreds of them!

How tired is too tired?

InstrumentsMany years ago, I was working as a registrar in plastic surgery. In this unit, we did a lot of complex head and neck reconstructions for cancer. One case I remember especially well was a wonderful lady who had a particularly nasty cancer on the floor of her mouth. She was scheduled for surgery on a Thursday. Thursday was reconstruction day. We started her operation around 8am, finished around 5am on Friday morning. I raced home for a quick shower, got changed and came back to work. No sleep. A lot of make-up. I came back into the ICU to see our lady and the free flap reconstruction was not looking great. It was likely that there was some problem with the blood supply of the tibia, muscle and skin we had borrowed to reconstruct the defect. An hour of trying things like manipulating blood pressure, taking pressure of the neck and heparin to dissolve any clot didn't work and so we headed back to the operating theatre to revise the flap. It was about 5pm on the Friday when I realised I had fallen asleep on the operating microscope.

This is not the first or last time I had been awake for several days. I am overly familiar with the reasons sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture. It is awful. In surgical literature, there has been a growing body of evidence that suggests sleep deprivation can be associated with mistakes made, especially by junior doctors. They are also at risk for traffic accidents, needlestick injury, burnout and other mental illness. Work-life balance is undeniably important.

In Europe and in the United States, working hour restrictions were brought into place to try and improve the safety of patients and doctors. In Australia, we have shift length restrictions and minimum breaks but in my experience, some hospitals play fast and loose with these areas of the award. 24 hour shifts still exist.

The European and US restrictions do have some drawbacks in surgery. Firstly, the increased number of shift changes may mean that a patient's care is 'handed over' to doctors resulting in the potential for Chinese whispers of the medical variety. Errors can be made each time we tell the story again, things forgotten. For training purposes, the reduced time on the ground may decrease training numbers and exposure to emergency cases.

An ambitious study was released today in the New England Journal of Medicine where investigators looked at the ACGME-compliant group versus a group with more flexible work hours. The main differences was that the conservative group couldn't have shifts over 16 hours (24 hours for more senior doctors) and had to have 14 hours between shifts. The flexible group could work over the 16 and 24 hour limit and did not have to have a 14 hour break.

Flexible working hours were not associated with any increase in adverse events, which is very reassuring. The flexible group residents did also not report any dissatisfaction with educational opportunities and were less likely to leave during an operation. The residents didn't report any adverse personal outcomes to working more hours.

What is very interesting about this paper is that the residents involved were not aware nor were they consented. Neither were patients, when care may have been affected. In my opinion, this is an ethical whoopsie. It may have changed outcomes as doctors changed behaviour or perception, but medical research is not in the business of not consenting its subjects.

Other data which would be great to see was not picked up would be incidence of needlestick injuries, a validated burnout scale or longer term well being or skill acquisition data. I think these things would make for a fascinating look at the effects of the things we do to ourselves.

I think work hour restrictions are actually important for training doctors. The weight of evidence to suggest that tired people are sad, burnout, dissatisfied, potentially error prone, divorced, unhealthy and so on is quite strong. We all know someone who has had a near-miss or actual accident being so tired after work. I had a bike accident one day, coming home from a long shift. I was too tired and didn't see the car pull out in front of me. An obstetrics registrar was killed in an MVA, a plastics registrar hospitalised. I don't know many surgical trainees or surgeons who haven't woken up in their cars, nearly underneath a bus.

That being said, I also believe that it is important to know how to operate when you're tired. Someone's life is going to depend on that one day. The first time you're doing an emergency procedure after a long day shouldn't be when you're out on your own. I also think that handing over mid-operation is not good for patients or doctors learning. Some flexibility must be afforded to experience emergency, tired and middle-of-the-night surgery. It should not, however, be the norm.

As with most scientific literature, we don't usually change practice based on one study alone. That should be the case here. More information is needed so that we can find a 'sweet spot' where the needs of both doctors and patients are looked after.

Back again in my plastic surgery days, those hours were long. We operated most nights, not just on true emergencies, but on urgent but not emergent cases. We needed to get the work done because there was no other time. On call for plastic surgery rarely meant home before midnight and back at 5am.

One night, I went to see a patient with the senior registrar. This man had been waiting to have a second operation on his hand after an injury. It was around 7pm and we were hoping to do him around 9 or 10pm that night. My senior told the patient this and he refused to consent.

"I've seen you here after midnight every day this week, mate. You're too tired"

The senior was seriously jacked off that his competence had been called into question.

In all likelihood, had he had his operation by the tired registrar that night, it may have gone well with no problems. In medicine, we try not to play too much with 'may have' or 'she'll be right mate' because when it comes to people's lives, close enough is not good enough.

Close enough is not good enough for our patients or our doctors. It is incumbent upon us to work out what is good enough.

Feminisation of the workforce: truly a problem?

This is a copy of a letter I am sending to the editor of the UK Newspaper The Times following an editorial by a Dominic Lawson. The article is available at Dear sir (or madam, because I hold hope that a woman may be employed by The Times),

As you may know, social media has been quite intrigued by the article written by Mr Dominic Lawson entitled 'The one sex change on the NHS that nobody has been talking about'. Mr Lawson's article is placing the blame for workforce issues, including the current junior doctors' contract dispute, squarely at the feet of the female doctors in the NHS. I am writing with both a strong rebuttal but also to express my extreme offence at the article.

My background is that I am a female doctor and moreover, I am a female heart and lung surgeon who practices in Australia. The shockwaves of this article have reached that far. In this country, our own regulatory bodies including the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons have gone to great lengths to investigate and move towards a medical workforce where opinions in the style of Mr Lawson are regarded as discriminatory and antiquated. 2015 has begun an era in Australia and more specifically in surgery when we will no longer tolerate sexism.

It is remiss of anyone to think that women alone are responsible for any issues related to work-life balance. Men also wish to be a part of their children's upbringing just as much as their wives.  Both male and female medical graduates make informed decisions about their career choices based on this. Many professions are now pushing for safe working hours and balance in one's life. This balance is so important for the physical and mental well-being of employees and is much more likely to yield productive employees. It is extremely inaccurate to say that this solely an issue of 'feminisation of the workforce'.

'Piling up' in accident and emergency wards has very little to do with doctors and a lot to do with the health workforce at large. Casualty is subjected to enormous pressures with patients who are increasingly complex, unable to access their overworked and under resourced general practices and hence overflow to emergency departments. Understaffing of orderlies, laboratories, radiology, wards and bed numbers at capacity are a real problem. Citing this as a side effect of graduating more female medics suggests that Mr Lawson has failed to grasp the actual issues that face a modern workforce and more specifically, that are faced in health care today. I would suggest that these issues are not only more real, but much more deserving of an editorial.

The general tone of the editorial is insulting to doctors like myself, who are consummate professionals, who are highly skilled and would get out of bed at any time for a patient who needs our care. It is an insult to the hours we have all freely given (in a financial and social sense) to the practice of our craft. In 2016, there is absolutely no place for editorials that are inflammatory and sexist. Maintaining a healthy and balanced workforce must be discussed. We should discuss how to accommodate maternity leave in a professional manner, not in the pages of a newspaper, with approaches for real workable solutions, not blaming one group for a problem.

Mr Lawson has mentioned that his daughter may take issue with his opinion. I honestly hope that she does. More importantly, I hope that Mr Lawson keeps in mind how he would like someone to speak of his daughter's skill, commitment and achievements in such a fashion as he does to mine. I doubt many fathers would truly be happy with their offspring being spoken of as he has done to me and my female colleagues across the globe.