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25 Mar 2015

By AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler

This opinion piece was first published in The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times on 25 March, 2015

As President of the AMA, I am proud of Australia’s medical profession and those within it who provide such high quality care to the Australian community. It is challenging to hear assertions that members of our profession act in a way that is unacceptable, particularly when it comes to sexual harassment.

As the former Victorian Police Commissioner, Ken Lay, recently wrote, it is easy for an organisation or profession to become defensive when faced with such an issue. I can understand that many members of the profession who have acted faithfully as mentors for young men and women in their early careers feel affronted by the accusations that sexual harassment is rife.

When these accusations were raised, I had a similar reaction. But in response I wrote to all AMA members about the issue and asked for their feedback. Our State and Territory AMAs have also sought to gain information by surveying our members.

I don’t know whether sexual harassment, bullying, or other unacceptable behaviours are ‘rife’. What I do know from the feedback, independent of the recent media, is that it exists - and this is unacceptable. As AMA President, I have undertaken to address this issue.

It does matter how frequently this occurs, and at what level. However, the threshold for deciding whether to act on it is not the frequency, but whether it exists at all. Other professions face similar problems. As for the medical profession, we should set the example. We should be the benchmark.

Unlike local health services or the medical Colleges, the AMA is not an employer, and we have minimal punitive measures that we can enforce. However, the AMA is unique in covering the breadth of the profession, and has a leadership role. The Federal AMA’s mission statement is to ‘Lead Australia’s doctors and promote Australia’s health’. Therefore, we are in a unique position to address these and other issues.

Last week, I called a number of College Presidents and asked them to attend a meeting in Canberra to address the issue of sexual harassment in the medical profession. The AMA Federal Council supported my proposal to host a Roundtable, which will be held in Canberra next week to address this topic.

No one should expect that one meeting will ‘fix’ this issue. Rather, I hope that the meeting is an opportunity for the medical profession to map an agenda for work in three main areas.

The first is to ensure that we have the procedures and policies in place through the Colleges, and also in the workplaces. For many trainees, the Colleges are a major focus. But it must be remembered that we have prevocational doctors whose only relationship is through their employer, which is the relevant jurisdiction’s department of health via their local health district. For others, the employer may be a corporate body, such as the case with salaried general practitioners. All of these groups must have the proper policies in place.

The second, and more difficult, area is that of protection and security in accessing appropriate reporting procedures. While I continue to disagree with the assertion that doctors should keep quiet about sexual harassment for fear of jeopardising their careers, we need to ensure that doctors, at any stage of their career, can lodge a complaint without fear of reprisal or discrimination. We will only successfully tackle this issue if we provide such protection. The AMA and others need to ensure a safe environment for victims to speak out.

Finally, we need to change the culture within the profession. The surgeons have been singled out, but the feedback that I have received indicates that the issue is much more widespread. Much of the problem is what could be described as more insidious and lower level, but just as destructive. Negative comments and putdowns can be devastating to the growth of a young person’s career even though they may not reach the threshold for that person to lodge a complaint.

I remember two distinct ‘pearls’ from my days as a medical student and intern. The first was sitting in a microbiology lab at the University of Sydney when Professor Yvonne Cossart pointed to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and said ‘those guys are really mean to each other when it comes to politics, but when one of them is in trouble they will do everything they can to help’. She had a lot of respect for ‘them’. The second was when Professor Chris O’Brien said to me that ‘we are all colleagues; we may have different seniority, but we are all members of the profession’.

They may have both passed on, but I remember those words like yesterday. To me, their words embody a sense of what it means to be part of the medical profession and, indeed, explain a good deal of my motivation to be AMA President. It is about being part of the ideal that puts the care of others as the pinnacle of a career in medicine. As medical professionals, we may be competitive, but my colleagues - who make sacrifices to care for others - are deserving of my care too.

To me, the fact that sexual harassment exists is unacceptable. I have spoken to others, such as General David Morrison and former Commissioner Ken Lay, who have dealt with similar issues. Our issues and roles are somewhat different, but our resolve is not.

The medical profession must set the benchmark. However uncomfortable it is, we must look at our behaviours and pull up the behaviours of others. The AMA is taking this issue seriously. If we cannot look after our own in the medical profession, then how are we able to look after the Australian public?


Published: 25 Mar 2015