Dr Liz Tompsett is a Council member and a busy surgeon. We spoke with Liz about giving back to the profession, maintaining work life balance and patient communication, and how she forged a successful career.
You’ve been involved with the Medical Council since 2007. What drives you to do this regulatory work on top of being a busy surgeon?
I joined the Performance Committee in 2007 and have been a Council member for the last three years. I’m involved in regulatory work because it’s a time honoured tradition throughout medicine to give back to the profession. The more you put into the profession, the more you get out of it and this has been my experience.
Many colleagues have told me they didn’t realise what the work of the Medical Council entailed until they either worked as part of the Council or had detailed knowledge of someone who did. That was definitely the case for me. A mentor thought I’d be a good fit to represent smaller hospitals. I took up the challenge and it's been really important to have that representation because the way we do things in smaller hospitals is very different to larger and tertiary level hospitals.
What have you learned from the experience? Have you seen any trends in complaints or do you have any insights you could share with the profession?
One of the things I teach registrars is to be your own worst critic. Doctors have a general tendency to wait until someone taps them on the shoulder before they retire. I believe in setting your standards high and trying to keep to them. My Medical Council work constantly reminds me of what the standard should be and what I need to continue to aim for.
Another clear trend is that doctors who take their regulatory involvement with Council seriously and use it as a learning experience, make the most rewarding progress. If someone criticises you, there’s always something to learn. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve mismanaged the patient, but often something has gone wrong in your interaction with the patient that you can take something from.
What has been your experience as a woman in surgery and do you have any advice for up and coming surgeons?
If you have the passion for it and have the aptitude, you can do anything you want. The career models now are very different to when I trained. Previously you were admired if you worked ridiculous hours, you did everything yourself and you overworked. Now we recognise that frequently leads to poor patient care. There are pathways in every specialty, even in surgery, that mean you can balance your life and you work better if you have some sort of work-life balance. I mean, obviously for women, it may mean looking after kids. Even though I don’t have children, I still don't work the long hours. I know I work better with balance.
You have a heavy load between your Council responsibilities and being a surgeon. I’ve even heard reports of you in theatre scrubs conducting online meetings with colleagues at 7:30am! How do you remain resilient?
I have always tried to make sure that I don't work insane hours, so I cap my consulting to three hours. I know that if do too many hours of consulting, I don’t provide the care I want to, can be abrupt or not explain things properly to patients. Lots of my colleagues feel pressured knowing there are patients that want to see them, so they have to make themselves available, that they have to always be there. But there's plenty of other surgeons. If a patient can't get in to see you, they'll get into somebody else.
As a surgeon, my work days can start early with rounds and run late with operations so I can optimise the cost of running the operating theatre for public health. Most surgeons don’t mind those long days because we enjoy operating and love the job. But it’s important for me to balance that with shorter consulting days and have a later start on other days. This gives me time to look after my animals, go for a run or get to the gym after work.
I've got plenty of activities outside medicine. Of course, there are times when medicine has to come first and sick patients mean being at work for 12 hours on a Saturday. But you have to be able to step back and find some balance as soon as possible. My advice is to put limits on your availability and make sure that you've got time to keep yourself sane.
What have been the strongest influences in your career?
I don’t remember actively making the decision to become a surgeon. I got to third year and I wasn't enjoying clinical medicine. I came back into fourth year and my first term was surgical, but I don't remember thinking “this is it, this is what I should do”. I often reflected that I'd be unemployable doing anything else! That's my niche. The way you think about things as a surgeon is just innate to me.
I’ve certainly worked with some people I admired. Sometimes it was that they had a great work-life balance. Sometimes it was their compassion for the patients and staff and that they kept their standards high.
You have also dedicated time to teaching. What did you enjoy most about that and was there anything you learnt during that time that helps you in your regulatory work today?
I spend a lot of time encouraging registrars to question, which is a mindset you have to take across everything. You need to be constantly thinking about whether you're doing the best thing at any one time.
It’s also critical we teach medical students how to relate to patients on their level. Often, I do this by roleplaying scenarios with them. Some registrars innately know how to speak to anybody. Others need it reinforced that they're not impressing anybody with jargon. It's a common complaint. Patients feel they can't follow what doctors are communicating and of course that raises issues around informed consent.
Complaints to Council present many patients who don't get the outcome that they wanted. When doctors respond saying, ‘Well, I explained all that all to them’, there's obviously a gap between what the doctor thinks they're explaining and what the patient's understanding. It can be really difficult to pick that up.