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14 May 2018


A few weeks ago in April, more than 200 medical students gathered at Hyde Park and marched through the streets of Sydney. Their message was simple – that detention harms health, and the Federal Government should allow a group of independent medical experts to undertake a comprehensive assessment of the health and other needs of the refugees and asylum seekers. It was the coming together of over 10 student organisations, headed by AMSA’s Crossing Borders, and many, from doctors to grandmothers, joined them.

This year, as President of the Australian Medical Students’ Association, I have been lucky enough to meet and speak with medical students from all around Australia. One trend in our member engagement has consistently surprised me. Medical students don’t become members of AMSA because of the advocacy we do for them around workforce or medical culture and wellbeing, but rather the advocacy we do for others.

As I write, AMSA’s Code Green team is in Bonn, Germany, at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference, bringing a focus on the Australian and global health ramifications of climate change. Students are lining up at blood banks as the annual AMSA Vampire Cup blood drive urges medical students, alongside their friends and families, to donate blood. AMSA Rural Health is speaking out on what is needed to level the playing field and support the health of rural communities.

I want to celebrate these students, and ask: How do we preserve this passion and energy into our professional years?

There can be resistance against doctors stepping outside of clinical medicine to advocate. But the role of a doctor ceased to be limited to treatment of a single patient’s health conditions a long time ago. Primary care, preventive medicine, the social determinants of health – today’s medicine recognises that our patients are not isolated from their surroundings. Doctors do not practise in a vacuum, and almost always the ailments presented in hospital and in clinic are inextricably linked to social and environmental factors outside of the realm of medicine alone.

Where social issues intersect with health, there is a role for the medical world to speak up. During the marriage equality plebiscite, the use of online mental health support services for LGBTIQ+ teens increased by up to 40 per cent. At a time when the validity of so many people’s identities was up for public debate and scrutiny, I heard countless stories of gratitude for the AMA’s strong supportive stance. This was a health issue, and knowing that Australia’s doctors were standing with their queer patients made a difference.

When doctors step into advocacy, they step forward as community leaders. Doctors have always been attributed a larger role in health and society than their clinical practice would necessarily entail. A core privilege of the medical profession is the trust that comes with it, a belief that our voices are altruistic, reliable and evidence-based. That provides a powerful platform from which doctors can work to address the environmental issues behind many illnesses devastating patients. Doctors have the ear of the most vulnerable Australians, and with that comes a responsibility to speak on the issues that affect their health.

AMSA works hard to equip medical students with the practical experience and tools to continue being advocates after they graduate – be it through media, representative organisations, political engagement or simply attending a march. Idealism is not just for the young. There are social challenges facing our nation’s health that can be changed. The collective voice of our profession is formidable; let’s make sure students and doctors alike continue to use it.

Published: 14 May 2018