Monday, 24 April 2017

Paediatrician leaves large educational legacy in Latrobe Valley

Some of Associate Professor Joseph Tam’s career pathways may be the result of his inability to say no to a good cause, but many people have certainly benefited from his “weakness”!

Numerous children and their families in the Latrobe Valley have received his expert care over the last 19 years. And in parallel to his clinical role, the Traralgon-based paediatrician has spent many years educating younger generations of doctors.

Always a teacher


This teaching has included working as an instructor for the Acute Paediatrics Life Support program and examining for both the Royal Australian College of Physicians (RACP) and the Australian Medical Council. He is also a member of the RACP General Paediatrics Advanced Training Committee and the Overseas Trained Paediatrician Sub-committee.

Monash Rural Health will remember him for his long contribution to the rural medical education program, particularly in Gippsland.

Dr Tam has stepped down as the Clinical Lead in Paediatrics at the Latrobe Regional Hospital after 12 years on the job, and as director of Monash University’s Latrobe Valley & West Gippsland after three years at the helm. But his involvement with Monash goes back much further.

A long involvement with Monash


Professor Roger Strasser, who was instrumental in establishing Monash Rural Health in the early 1990s, approached Dr Tam to teach on an honorary basis soon after he arrived in Traralgon 19 years ago. In 2003, he was engaged as a Senior Lecturer at the then Gippsland Regional Clinical School. Subsequently, Dr Tam was appointed as an Honorary Senior Lecturer, Department of Paediatrics, Monash University. In 2005, Dr Tam became the Discipline Lead in Children Health, Monash Rural Health Latrobe Valley & West Gippsland - a position he held until 2015 when he was appointed as an Associate Professor in Rural Medicine (Hospital Education) and the Director of Monash Rural Health Latrobe Valley & West Gippsland.

Dr Tam has seen many changes over that time including the duration of placements. Students would come from Clayton Melbourne for nine weeks; now they can spend a year or more in the region. “A lot of progress has been made providing education, teaching and training in rural areas. I think we’re heading in the right direction,” he said.

Teaching with Monash was an extension of work Dr Tam was already doing at the hospital. When he arrived at Latrobe Regional Hospital in 1998, many international medical graduates (IMGs) were studying for the AMC exams. “I always enjoyed teaching and sharing my knowledge and experience with the younger doctors,” said Dr Tam. Before long he was running tutorials for IMGs to help with the paediatric component of their clinical exams. In 2009, Dr Tam became a clinical examiner in paediatrics for the Australian Medical Council (AMC); seven years ago he became a Regional Examiner and in 2014 a member of the National Examination Panel for the FRACP clinical examination of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP).

Choosing regional practice


Traralgon is a long way from the large teaching hospitals in Sydney where the Hong Kong born doctor had worked since his internship. After completing two years in paediatric nephrology training at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead, Dr Tam faced the choice between a self-funded trip to Canada to complete a PhD as part of his training or a clinical role in regional general paediatrics practice. The decision was made easy when he was approached about the position at Latrobe Regional Hospital. “I came down to have a look and said to myself: ‘this is too good to be true'. There was no paediatrician and all the work was waiting for one. So I came.”

Dr Tam became the only visiting consultant paediatrician at Latrobe Regional Hospital and oversaw the growth of the small paediatric service into a department of five paediatricians, two paediatric advanced trainees and five paediatric hospital medical officers, who provide 24-hour, seven-day on-site paediatric services at the hospital.

Regional recruitment - the social dilemma


During his tenure, Dr Tam has seen trainees and junior colleagues return to work in regional and rural areas. “It’s rewarding especially when they turn out to be good ones,” he said. While he was delighted to see young graduates return, Dr Tam acknowledged there are challenges in recruiting and retaining health professionals in rural areas. “Most of them like the work in the regional areas although some of them feel a little apprehensive in the beginning. But once they come, they all love the work. It’s just the social factors that stop some of them from coming or returning.”

Most families now have two working parents, he pointed out. Sometimes partners have jobs that are not available in regional areas which makes it difficult for a health professional who might otherwise be interested in working in a rural context. Paediatrics, particularly, is a difficult profession to attract. “The majority of paediatricians are female and quite a lot of them have families,” said Dr Tam. “They cannot come out to work in the regional areas where it involves after hours on-call work. It is not easy when they have young children and have no extended family to provide support.” The solution he suggested – only half in jest – is to ensure students meet and marry local people.

The future is regional


Dr Tam plans to continue working in paediatrics in a regional area, and to teach both within and outside hospital settings. “We just have to keep on pushing the boundary so that hopefully we can teach and train the workforce entirely in a rural area. That would certainly be the ultimate success,” he said. Given his track record, it’s unlikely Dr Tam will say no to any opportunities to be involved in educating and supporting future doctors.


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