Off the Beaten Path
- On July 14, 2020
- July / August 2020
Off the Beaten Path
What started with a dozen people looking for like-minded individuals to discuss the road less travelled in medicine has ballooned into a community of thousands of medical professionals who share one common goal – the creation of a rewarding and fulfilling career.
JUST TWO YEARS in and Creative Careers in Medicine has firmly established itself as the magnet for medical professionals looking to combine medicine with their passion for other pursuits, as well as a safe harbour for those on the brink of burn out.
“Initially we thought 10 or 15 of us would get together and just have a chat about some of the issues we’re facing and support each other,” explains Dr Amandeep Hansra, Founder and Director of Creative Careers in Medicine.
But after being approached by a few younger colleagues who expressed interest in the direction her career had taken, Dr Hansra changed tack slightly.
She invited a couple colleagues to come along and speak to the junior doctors.
What was supposed to be an informal afternoon tea event with about 20 people quickly burgeoned to 500 attendees.
And that was the beginning of Creative Careers in Medicine – an 8,000-member organisation that continues to attract medical professionals from all specialities and at all stages of their careers.
Gap in Medicine
The huge response to CCIM’s first symposium in May 2018, clearly signalled there was a need in medicine to establish a community.
Dr Hansra, alongside other CCIM Founder Dr Ashe Coxon and CCIM Community Manager Jessica Abbey created an online community to allow the group to be connected and continue to support each other.
CCIM defines itself as a community of doctors and health professionals who believe “a medical career should be whatever you want to make it – not what you’re told it should be”.
“We’re advocates for professional freedom, igniting your imagination and guiding you toward your passions – so you can realise your ambitions.”
Dr Ashe Coxon, a general practitioner who lives in Townsville, started working as a career counsellor almost seven years ago. As the founder of Medical Career Planning, she has a passion for assisting doctors with their personal career journey. She met Dr Hansra after putting out a call through Facebook for speakers to be involved in a session on non-clinical careers.
Soon after, Dr Hansra came up with the idea for CCIM and asked if she’d be interested. Dr Coxon recalls saying, “it sounds like what the world needs.”
She explains, “In medicine we pick some of the brightest, some of the most creative, and some of the most hardworking people out there – and then they head down a pathway that is really quite prescriptive. So there’s all these people who are getting into medicine who have all these different interests and visions and ideas ... and then they’re told to do medicine a certain way.”
She says, “There’s a big bunch of people that almost needed permission to come out of their shell … who were just wanting to explore a different side of themselves that medicine didn’t offer. And that’s where CCIM has really filled that gap – it allows people to explore with no judgement.”
No judgement is exactly what Dr Sonia Henry was looking for when she joined CCIM. The author of Going Under, a fictional book based on her experiences as a junior doctor, says the group offered a safe refuge of like-minded doctors.
“I also found the community very supportive and encouraging. Sometimes medicine can be a little cut-throat and competitive, but I found CCIM genuinely was interested in what my creative interest was and wanted to use it to encourage other doctors interested in writing or creative pursuits. It was great to realise there were more doctors out there like me.”
Dr Henry says she can’t imagine a life that was solely focused on medicine.
“I don’t think it matters who you are or what you do – to lead a life that is literally full of only one thing is not really a way to exist in the world. I’m not only interested in having a passion outside of medicine – it is essential to my wellbeing and happiness.”
A Safe Harbour
Akin to medicine’s version of The New Colossus (“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”), CCIM’s mission statement seeks to take the profession’s broken souls and help them reimagine a future that combines the career they’ve had with the career they want.
Dr Hansra explains that there are two types of people who end up in CCIM.
“There are the people who get pushed out of the system through bad experience, getting burnt out, seeing some of the failings in traditional medical career paths and then there are people who get attracted to us, because they’ve always had a creative interest or they’ve always had a side hustle.”
She tells the story of an ED physician who also works as an expedition doctor, travelling around the world as a photographer, taking photos for National Geographic and coming back to Australia in between trips to work in a hospital.
She describes those members as being ‘pulled’ to the organisation or attracted to the values the CCIM represents – a stepping off of the traditional pathway.
And then there are the members who are ‘pushed’ toward CCIM – those who are burnt out or have been bullied, those who are frustrated and on the edge of giving up medicine altogether.
It’s the second group, those who feel they are being pushed out of the medicine, that Dr Hansra is really keen to reach.
“We want to fix the system. We don’t want everyone to just walk away and leave medicine.”
In addition to being involved in doctors’ health and wellness campaigns, such as #CrazySocks4Docs, CCIM looks at supporting those members through upskilling or repurposing.
“For example, for members who don’t like traditional clinical roles in medicine, we ask ‘could you come back in a management role, or could you come back in a systems-improvement role?’ Then we would help that person get the leadership or other necessary skills they need. We try and help people use the other transferable skills that they have already and point them in the right direction, so then they can re-imagine what their medical or health career might look like.”
The work CCIM is doing is making a huge difference in the lives of doctors who otherwise might look to give up medicine completely – or worse.
“I had a few doctors say to me after the conference, ‘I’ve been depressed, I’m having suicidal thoughts and really hating what I’m doing with my life, and my career is a big part of it.’ But they come to the conference and they meet their tribe and realise they are not alone. They meet other people who have gone through what they’ve been through and realised they’re normal and there’s nothing wrong with feeling overwhelmed.”
And it’s not just senior doctors. CCIM is increasingly finding junior doctors and even medical students who are wary of the system and what lies ahead.
“All they hear in medical school at the moment is all the horror stories of being in the hospital setting and what life is like on the other end. They talk about suicide and bullying and burn out and mental health issues, also that there might not be a job for them – and we’ve got a lot medical students who are very interested in what we’re doing because it gives them hope and inspires them that there are other options, there are lots more than just a traditional path.”
Finding Your Tribe
Central to CCIM is the tenet of inclusion.
“We just want to provide a warm, supportive environment for people,” Dr Hansra says, noting that the medical community can be negative at times.
“If somebody in our group says, ‘I’m really frustrated and hate my training program, I want to leave’ – you don’t get all these people pouncing on them saying, ‘how dare you waste a training spot?’”
CCIM provides a safe place for members to take a frank look at their lives and communicate with colleagues who are going through – or who have gone through – similar experiences.
Dr Raghav Murali-Ganesh has been a member of CCIM since its inception.
“Being a doctor and moving away from the traditional path is challenging not only because of the opportunity cost but the lack of understanding and perhaps support from peers and others,” he says.
A radiation oncology specialist, Dr Murali-Ganesh co-founded CancerAid in 2015 to assist patients during their care programs. The CancerAid app provides patients with personalised cancer information; a personal journal where patients can microblog their experiences and symptoms; a support network of medical and non-medical champions; and a community of other cancer patients.
The app was a logical culmination of Dr Murali-Ganesh’s passion for helping patients and entrepreneurial spirit.
“I have always had an interest in entrepreneurship. Whilst in medical school I had a couple of very early stage, small scale ventures. They spurred on my interest. CancerAid became a passion during my training to becoming an oncologist. With existing passion, newly developed skills and a great team, we have been able to create what we have today – a company that uses technology to transform the experiences for those living with cancer.”
Dr Murali-Ganesh is an active participant of CCIM, and attends numerous events
“As Amandeep [Dr Hansra] says, ‘finding your tribe’ has been great. You not only get to meet incredible people who have a common stem to yourself but also validate your career choices in being creative with your medical career.”
Dr Mark Hohenberg, a geriatrician working at The Salus Clinic and Chief Medical Officer for the technology company Curiious, shares this sentiment.
“It gave me an opportunity to meet other like-minded people who had always been a bit esoteric, focusing on niche areas within medicine or adjunctive to clinical practice.”
Dr Hohenberg says the group attracts people from all over the world and advice is freely shared by people who not only have experience in niche areas but have ‘walked the walk’ - leaving an established clinical practice prospective career path/ ladder and following their dreams.
“I love clinical medicine and will never leave it entirely. I personally find deep and meaningful satisfaction in supporting patients to improve their health in a way that works for them. My greatest issue was how can I do this on a larger scale? How can I help more people than I could potentially see myself? To answer this question, I had to look to scaling what I can do through sharing what I have learned with the next generation as well as developing resources to deliver care beyond what I could provide alone.
“This has been exciting, and I am still learning the ropes of both business management, start-ups and governance. Again, the support of clinicians and individuals allied to medicine but with different skillsets within CCIM has been invaluable. It has also helped encourage me to pursue an aspect of technology I have an interest in, integrating virtual reality with clinical practice in Australia.”
He says there’s never been a more exciting time to be in medicine.
“Opportunities abound for practitioners interested in pursuing a traditional and creative career. To learn from the trailblazers in the CCIM community at all levels is incredible.”
According to Dr Hansra, “For a lot of these people it’s just that support, that community, and sometimes they feel it’s a safer place than their College.”
CCIM has had some support from Colleges such as Royal Australasian College Medical Administrators and the Australasian College of Sport and Exercise Physicians but has yet to attract others.
The perception that CCIM may present a threat could be keeping some Colleges from expressing more interest, suggests Dr Hansra.
“They might feel like we are taking trainees away from them – we’re not, we want to support people to stay, but give them an option to have a side hustle or interest or express their creativity. We’re about longevity and sustainability. So, if you’re going to keep somebody in a traditional clinical career, you’ve got to give them an opportunity to have other outlets. I think that’s where the Colleges get confused about where we sit. We’re not competition – we’re not training people – but what we are is a community.”
Dr Zachary Tan, CancerAid’s Chief Strategy Officer, notes that the professional implications of leaving clinical practice to consider non-clinical commitments – ie, digital health, management consulting, entrepreneurship remains very high.
“Rarely do our professional and medical education bodies recognise the value of these pursuits, particularly if we choose to return to clinical practice – having to explain career breaks, seeming ‘unfaithful’ to medicine, etc. I would love to see this to change. In this current context, CCIM and finding community amongst other doctors pursuing non-clinical careers has been really rewarding.
“I note that within CCIM, there are also nascent efforts for professional/medical education bodies to better recognise the value of non-clinical pursuits, and certainly the support of the AMA here would also be welcome,” he says.
CCIM doesn’t receive any outside funding and the organisers run the entire organisation themselves.
“It’s not about money for us – we spend a lot of time on it. But for me, this fills my cup up. You do things in your life that give you inspiration.”
Dr Hansra said one particular doctor, who was on the brink of depression, was so inspired by CCIM they took a sabbatical to travel around the world for a year and pursue their creative interests.
“They stayed in touch and told me that coming to the conference was a life-changing moment. And that was when I thought – I can’t stop now. Contributing to that one person – to help them stop feeling so despondent – means this movement has to continue.”
Journey to CCIM
Dr Amandeep Hansra graduated medical school at 22 and found it difficult to find her niche. She did a Master’s in public health and tropical medicine and moved frequently – doing some ED locuming, working in ICU, and pursuing her interest in infectious diseases.
She eventually landed on general practice. It fit for a number of reasons, but there was a nagging sense that this was the peak of her professional development. So, she looked for other opportunities.
“I started to do a bit of occupational medicine, a bit of travel medicine, immigration medicine, just to have that diversity, which I mixed with traditional general practice.” While working at Medibank Health Solutions, the company asked if she wanted to be involved in telehealth.
“I had never heard of telehealth, I wasn’t even really a technology person. But it sounded exciting.”
Dr Hansra became involved in governance and incident management, investigation and training. She started to get the management side of the health experience and discovered a passion for being involved in system-wide change.
She was soon approached by another telehealth company, and eventually was recruited to join Telstra as Chief Medical Officer to set up their telehealth business.
She worked in partnership with a Swiss company, Medgate, which gave her international experience. She was exposed to a telehealth service in the Middle East and was also responsible for setting up similar services in the Philippines.
Throughout these experiences, Dr Hansra continued to do clinical work as a general practitioner.
She eventually left Telstra and found she had a combination of skills that were very much in demand.
“I had organisations approach me and say, you’re a doctor, and you understand technology and you understand systems. Could you come and fix this problem for us or could you come and help us with this project. So, I started working more as a consultant – going in and helping at a government level or with private industry, hospitals, technology companies or insurers. I realised there is a whole niche for people who are clinical but can be problem solvers for the health system.”
Dr Hansra never planned this career path and says leaps in her career came down to saying ‘yes’.
“When someone gives you an opportunity you say yes, and that leads to another opportunity, which leads to another opportunity and for me, I’ve just been in the right place at the right time. But if you never leave your comfort zone, you’re never going to be in the right place at the right time.” Occasionally she’s taken an opportunity that was a bit inconvenient, or perhaps not as lucrative as staying the course, but in the end – every risk has been worth it.
“My advice is – sometimes you have to take a step back to go forward… I’ve never regretted doing that because if it’s a job that’s interesting for you and it’s something that’s going to teach you, then it might be worth some of the other sacrifices.”