In every edition of Radius, we profile Sydney Medical School graduates to see where their studies have taken them. This time we report on Dr Benjamin Veness.
Dr Benjamin Veness studied his first degree in accounting, believing he wanted to become a chief financial or executive officer, and began a career in corporate strategy in the banking sector. While this had its comforts and upsides, he had a gnawing sensation throughout his early 20s that he could do something more with his life.
After researching medicine as a career and exploring his study options, he decided to apply to undertake further study, this time in medicine. To his surprise and delight, he was offered a place at Sydney Medical School.
It felt like I had won first prize in the medical school lottery! There’s a quote along the lines of, “You’ll regret the things you didn’t do, much more than the things you did.” This resonated with me, and I am glad I made the choice to return to study.
His corporate skills weren’t wasted, however, as he found many opportunities to apply them once back at university. Veness produced his cohort’s medical revue and raised $43,000 for charity, he joined the Senate of the University for two consecutive terms and was heavily involved with the Australian Medical Association. He took a year off medical school to be president of the Australian Medical Students’ Association (AMSA).
Veness also enrolled in a Master of Public Health and was awarded a Churchill Fellowship with which he travelled to North America, Europe and Asia to research university students’ mental health. After medical school, he completed his internship and residency at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital before moving to Melbourne to commence psychiatry training at The Alfred. Veness is currently completing his sub-specialty training in child and adolescent psychiatry, which he plans to finish in just over a year’s time. While working as a doctor he has tried his best to maintain a variety of advocacy interests, but finds it a lot harder now than when he was in medical school.
What work/achievement have you been most proud of? Why?
My Churchill Fellowship report, ‘The Wicked Problem of University Student Mental Health’, made a major contribution to putting university student mental health on the Australian agenda. It followed several years of work on the University Senate and with AMSA. With about one million students studying at Australian universities and the majority of these students in the age groups at highest risk of mental illness, it could make an enormous difference if we did a better job of prevention and early intervention.
What made you decide to return to study and complete a Master of Public Health?
My background in corporate strategy taught me that I enjoy working on complex, system-level problems. Clinical medicine has a lot to offer, but from early on I decided that I also wanted to develop skills that would help me make broader change than I could achieve seeing one patient at a time. I intercalated my Master of Public Health (MPH) within my medical degree, completing it during my year as President of AMSA. The degree taught me relevant knowledge and skills that helped with my advocacy work, confirmed that I was interested in a career that included public health not just clinical medicine, and helped me to put the individual patient in a social context. This probably influenced my interest in psychiatry, where the social determinants of health are better-recognised than in most medical specialties.
When did you take an interest in mental health, particularly for doctors and medical students? Why is this so important?
At the end of my first year of medical school, I had the privilege of being elected to the University Senate, and a year later I was re-elected for a second term. Reading Honi Soit and speaking to students, I came to realise just how incredibly widespread mental health problems were amongst university students in general, and doctors and medical students in particular. I figured that in my unique position as a Fellow of Senate, I might be able to help raise the profile of this issue, which was somewhat neglected at the time. It is important because the very business of both universities and health services relies on cognitive skills, yet mental health problems often impair cognition and motivation. It makes sense to me that if we are in the business of using and developing our minds, we should also be in the business of making those minds as healthy and well-functioning as they can be. It’s a similar argument, I guess, as to why a sporting team trains hard to maintain optimal physical fitness in order to have the best chance of winning the premiership.
With COVID-19 now further impacting the mental health of many workers, what improvements are you campaigning for and how have you been doing this?
Healthcare workers cannot perform at their best when they are physically or mentally unwell, or feel scared to go to work. It is therefore imperative that they are protected as best as possible from acquiring COVID-19 themselves, and that they feel their employers and governments are doing their utmost to achieve this. I am working with some very clever and passionate colleagues to have the precautionary principle applied in all settings, including clear acknowledgement that COVID-19 infections can be caused by aerosols generated when a case breathes, speaks or coughs. This means we need to consider the whole hierarchy of risk controls, starting with eliminating risks where we can, implementing engineering improvements like better ventilation, and finally ensuring healthcare workers caring for patients with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 wear fit-tested P2/N95 respirators and other appropriate personal protective equipment.