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In medicine, we are a community

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When I participated in my first Federal Election at the age of 18, I didn’t see my individual voice or my individual vote as a contribution to democracy that carried much weight. If experience hadn’t already done so, the 2016 Federal Election would have dispelled me of that notion.

This year, as President of the Australian Medical Students’ Association, I have the opportunity of speaking to medical students around the country. Whenever I do, I try to take the time to remind them of the way they saw the profession of medicine when they first entered it. Those days and weeks when they realised that medicine is unlike many other undertakings; in medicine, we are a community.

Medical students throughout Australia form a group of 17,000. If you add doctors into the mix, you get a town the size of Toowoomba, where I grew up. All of us share a common experience and a common motivation to provide communities with the best attainable health. In this way, myself and the consultant on my ward round and the other 120,000 of us, medical students and doctors alike, are our own little team. There’s a powerful collegiality in medicine, and where that can be even partially harnessed we are a significant and credible force.

In fact, at early count, we are a force almost as significant as the number of votes between the two major parties in this Federal Election. 

This community of medical professionals has an ability to positively impact health that is far greater than the sum of its parts. As a community, we can drive a successful public health campaign; we can restore the health of a region after a time of crisis; we can drive the development and defence of good health policy for our nation.

Engaging with policy and politics is not always high in the priorities of medical professionals, not least because their workload leaves them little time for other endeavours. In addition, doctors and medical students don’t necessarily believe themselves to be inherently political, and at times face criticism when they step outside the clinical sphere. However, each of us came into this profession to improve the health of those who need us, and oftentimes that requires more than treating the patients who walk through hospital or clinic doors. 

I often frame the political relevance of the medical profession with the words of Rudolph Virchow: “Medicine is a social science, and politics is nothing else but medicine on a large scale. Medicine, as a social science, as the science of human beings, has the obligation to point out problems and attempt their theoretical solutions: the politician, the practical anthropologist, must find the means for their actual solution.”

Elections can be won and lost over health, and doctors are at the coalface. If every one of our 120,000 strong community was to raise their voice on health issues affecting the populations we serve, Australia’s political discourse would be far richer for it. We would not all agree, and would in fact raise almost as wide a variety of views on health as can be imagined. However, it is from the clear enunciation of all of these views that sound health policy can be derived. 

In the years since my first Federal Election, I have learnt both in theory and through experience that an individual can have a significant impact on our country through their vote, and through their voice. I hope to learn again and again throughout my career the significance of the impact of 120,000 individuals, in particular. If each one of our community were to engage with the wider questions facing our nation’s health, all communities would be better for it.

Email: elise.buisson@amsa.org.au 

Twitter: @elisebuisson