this (doc­tored) life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Peter Hill

“What kind of doc­tor are you?” the re­cep­tion­ist asks, glanc­ing side­ways from her com­puter screen to cor­rob­o­rate my forth­com­ing an­swer. If I am a so-called real doc­tor, I am en­ti­tled to the Medi­care-only fee, the spe­cial­ist’s cour­tesy to a med­i­cal col­league. “I can be what­ever kind of doc­tor you want,” I say. “Medicine or phi­los­o­phy: you choose. If you have a heart attack, I can re­sus­ci­tate you or philosophise over you.” She smiles neu­trally.

Nei­ther claim is tech­ni­cally true. When I grad­u­ated in medicine, we didn’t re­ceive a doc­tor of medicine but com­pleted a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in medicine and surgery. And my doc­tor of phi­los­o­phy from the Brussels Free Uni­ver­sity is a “doc­tor in de medis­che weten­schap­pen” — in the med­i­cal sciences — though I am as­sured that PhD is the ap­pro­pri­ate ab­bre­vi­a­tion.

It’s not the first time I have been asked. My son asked me the same ques­tion un­ex­pect­edly one evening. Af­ter a lengthy ex­pla­na­tion of what a public health physi­cian work­ing in in­ter­na­tional health does, I asked him what prompted him to ask. “It’s the teach­ers. They al­ways ask, ‘What does your fa­ther do?’ and when I say, ‘He’s a doc­tor’, they al­ways ask, ‘ What kind?’ ” In­ter­est­ing. So what have you been telling them? “I just say you’re a sur­geon,” he said, laugh­ing. “That keeps them happy.”

In­creas­ingly, though, I am less cer­tain of what kind of doc­tor I am. My early clin­i­cal ca­reer fo­cused on ob­stet­rics and pe­di­atrics. Both were rich and usu­ally pos­i­tive en­gage­ments. But three years prac­tis­ing in Nige­ria were bru­tal: heavy clin­i­cal loads in a hos­pi­tal where the deaths of moth­ers and chil­dren haunted my days.

I shifted to­wards pri­mary care in a ru­ral health pro­gram, train­ing com­mu­nity health work­ers in the hope of pre­vent­ing some of that bur­den of ill­ness. Af­ter I re­turned to Australia to a mix of in­ter­na­tional and Abo­rig­i­nal health work, my med­i­cal prac­tice be­came the di­min­ish­ing com­ple­ment to my work in health sys­tems re­search and pol­icy. My clin­i­cal work with Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple in Kakadu and later across cen­tral Queens­land re­in­forced my con­vic­tion that sus­tain­able health out­comes de­pended on so­cial and eco­nomic change.

As I en­gaged fur­ther in academe, the lit­tle af­ter-hours medicine that I main­tained to keep open the op­tion of re­turn­ing to clin­i­cal prac­tice was strangely dis­sat­is­fy­ing.

So I let it go. Now I teach, re­search and men­tor. What mat­ters to me now is less what I can do but what my stu­dents are tak­ing back into the world. Af­ter all, the word doc­tor re­ally means teacher — from the Latin do­cere — which Cicero de­fined as “pro­vid­ing truth through ev­i­dence and ar­gu­ment”.

Maybe I am that kind of doc­tor.

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