When Dr John Sammut joined the then Medical Board as a health program assessor he had no ambition to become President. However, more than a decade later and having undertaken a broad spectrum of roles throughout the Council, Dr Sammut commenced his position as President on 1 July 2020. We spoke with Dr Sammut about his career and his vision for the Council as its President.
Medical Council of NSW (MCNSW): Congratulations on your new role as President. Can you tell us a bit about your day job?
Dr John Sammut (JS): My training is as an emergency physician. I’m the Director of a Level 4 Intensive Care Unit at Canterbury Hospital and work in the ED there. I’m also the Senior District Advisor for Emergency Medicine for Sydney LHD. I offer advice on emergency department issues within the District when required.
MCNSW: What is it about your day job that you love the most?
JS: There are many things about my day job that I love and it’s hard to say which I love the most! I love working in a team and being amongst the nurses that I’ve worked with for many, many years. I love the junior doctors I get to mentor and teach. I enjoy talking to patients and their loved ones, explaining things to them and reassuring them about their illnesses as much as I can. As I get more senior I also enjoy my colleagues being respectful of what I’ve achieved and being keen to learn from that experience.
MCNSW: What attracted you to working in the area of medical regulation?
JS: I was asked to join the Health Program as an assessor. They were looking for people to do interviews on impaired practitioners to check on their progress. It’s an incredibly humbling experience to have colleagues open up and tell you their troubles and to see where doctors can struggle with their professional work through addiction or mental illness.
I was fortunate that I became the Australian College of Emergency Medicine’s representative on Council in 2014. Really, I haven’t looked back. I went from being a health assessor, onto Professional Services Committees (PSCs), Tribunal hearings and then chair of two committees: Conduct and Performance before I was asked to join Council and then take on executive roles.
I never had an ambition to become President but I’ve been incredibly enriched by my experience with Council so far. I’ve learnt a lot about medical practice in other fields, what can go wrong and how people can err. I’ve tried to use that information in my other work to tell lots of stories (de-identified of course!) about where practitioners can go wrong and what we can learn from that. That’s the beauty of it; you’re challenged intellectually, and you’re contributing to keeping the public safe by trying to find a just, reasonable and measured response to complaints.
MCNSW: What preconceived ideas did you have about Council before you joined, versus what you know now?
JS: For those of us working the wheels in regulation, we gain a fairly intimate knowledge of how the Council operates. But the vast majority of people in medical practice have very little understanding of the Council and its work or purpose. I’ve given the talk a number of times now about the work we do, how we do it and what it involves, and you see the light bulb come on when people finally understand.
I think that’s one of the challenges for Council. I don’t think we’re breaking through to your average medical practitioner about what we do, the important role we play protecting the public and with that, the reputation and the honorable position practitioners still hold in the community.
MCNSW: You’ve been Deputy President for the last few years, how do you think stepping into A/Prof Richard Walsh’s shoes will change things for you?
JS: I’ve been really very fortunate, Richard was incredibly inclusive. Richard went into this job saying “I’m taking you with me as Deputy and there’s (almost!) no meeting or activity that you can’t come to”.
But now my job goes up a notch. I’ve become much more the conduit for the Council and its engagement with its stakeholders. Whether that’s practitioners, complainants, MIIs, the AMA, Ministry, or the Minister. It’s my job to make sure that we’re true to our brief of protecting the public, doing so in a way that engages the broader medical profession.
MCNSW: What are your goals for Council and its work over the coming years?
JS: We need to be responsive and reflective of the community’s wishes to keep the public safe, but doing it with a respect for our colleagues and a great sense of striving for natural justice. There’s tweaking we need to do around the regulatory framework and I’ll push for that in forums when I can, so that we’re even more effective. Principally, I want us to become more effective, efficient, consistent, timely and transparent in our processes and as a regulator. That’s the hallmark of what we need to be doing better.
MCNSW: Can you name a person who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader? Why and how did this person impact your life?
JS: I’ve had many leaders I’ve watched and been inspired by. As a student, there was tutor I admired enormously because he was a great teacher and he brought a great warmth to his teaching. He lead by example, was incredibly knowledgeable and very respectful about the way he taught us. He was a mentor in the true tradition of medical mentorship, I think. I remember him well, his name was Dr Tony Breslin and he was head of the respiratory unit at Concord.
But I’ve been fortunate enough to work with many great leaders over a long period of time and draw inspiration from many of them.
MCNSW: Is there any other message you’d like to share with the profession at the beginning of your tenure?
JS: Regulation is part and parcel of medical practice and it is only there to ensure that medical practitioners stay true to the values that have always been part and parcel of the medical profession. We are a caring, communicative, diligent, hard-working group of people who genuinely care about the people who come to us and need our help. If you abide by the Code and you practice true to the code of the profession, then you have no reason to ever be fearful of any interactions you may have in responding to a complaint. Complaints can be a part of even the best medical practice but that doesn’t necessarily in any way form or shape you as a medical practitioner if you stay true to the values of our profession which is a very noble profession in society.