#136 IWD Member profile: Dr Sarah Whitelaw


5 March 2020

We are celebrating the achievements of AMA Victoria’s female members to mark International Women’s Day on Sunday 8 March. This year’s theme is #EachforEqual:

An equal world is an enabled world. Individually, we're all responsible for our own thoughts and actions - all day, every day. We can actively choose to challenge stereotypes, fight bias, broaden perceptions, improve situations and celebrate women's achievements. Collectively, each one of us can help create a gender equal world.

AMA Victoria strongly supports a gender equal world and medical profession. In our International Women’s Day profile series, we’re introducing you to some of our dedicated current and future medical leaders.

Introducing: Dr Sarah Whitelaw

What is your current role in medicine?
Emergency Medicine Physician VMO Royal Melbourne Hospital Emergency Department. I am a current director on the AMA Victoria Board and the Australian College of Emergency Medicine (ACEM) Victorian Faculty Representative to AMA Victoria Council. I’m also currently the Deputy Chair of the Industrial Relations Subcommittee for AMAV and a member of the AMA Federal Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee.

I sit on the DHHS Violence in Healthcare Reference Group, the Victoria Police and Health Sector Working Group and the Committee of Chairs of Victorian State Committees of Medical Colleges.

I also instruct on Advanced Paediatric Life Support (APLS) and Early Management of Severe Trauma (EMST) courses.

I think my family would object if I didn’t include the extra details, as they all contribute to facilitating me holding those roles! I feel extraordinarily lucky to also be able to contribute in ways that are different to my core paid role. I think it makes me better at my ‘job’ and makes me feel like I’m addressing some of the system issues that frustrate us all and that we know need changing on behalf of our colleagues and our patients.

Why did you choose to study medicine?

I was trying to work out what to study at university; I knew I wanted to ‘help’ in some way. I went to a number of orientation lectures where doctors outlined the breadth of our profession and the fact that there were niches that could accommodate almost all passions and personality types. It reassured me that I would find ‘my tribe’ and my place to contribute if I studied medicine. It tipped me over the line in choosing which course of study to undertake and I am very grateful to those who I now realise took time out of their extremely demanding jobs and lives to encourage and welcome prospective students.

What is the best part about your work?

The patients. Hands down. Human beings are so fascinating and my work is a true ‘circus of life’ every day. I am constantly surprised at the dignity, gratefulness and politeness of people in what is often the most terrible circumstances of their lives. There is tragedy and violence and extreme service provision pressure often, but I am constantly learning and it is never ever boring.

My colleagues are the other factor – extraordinary, intelligent, compassionate and often surprisingly funny human beings.

What is the hardest part about your work?

The system issues that frustrate us all and make it difficult to do our jobs, to the standard of excellence that we would like, to deliver quality and efficient patient care. 

If you were Health Minister for a day, what changes would you make to the health system?

Prioritise public health and being a ‘well’ society. Recognise that all healthcare staff want to provide excellent, efficient cost-effective care to their patients – that's genuinely what we want to do. Facilitate doctors being able to do this in every way possible - making sure industrial conditions are fair and implemented properly, provide equipment and systems that offer complete support and recognise the importance of all the non-clinical work that is done in ensuring excellent clinical service, etc. 

We’ll honestly take care of the rest!

Do you have any advice for others pursuing a career in medicine?

I truly believe there is a niche for an incredible variety of skills and passions. There is no doubt that a career in medicine is a life choice, impacting far more than your ‘work’. My recommendation is that it is a decision that you should make in a way that is as fully informed as possible. It is fulfilling in many, many ways, but there will be a potential impact on those around you. There is a way to change the things that you come up against that frustrate you, so don’t feel that some of the negatives are insurmountable. But it does take work and time to do this.

What do you enjoy doing away from medicine?

I would love to spend more time with my family. They are growing up so fast and my kids have their own full little lives now. I love reading and travel and my friends are essential to my wellbeing and a source of inspiration and great support. I’ve learned that I have to maintain a level of fitness to do my job and my greatest deficit in my life at the moment is definitely sleep.

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