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Celebrating International Women's Day 2018 - interview with Dr Christine Younan

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Please tell us a little about yourself and the work you do?
I am an ophthalmologist in Sydney. I work in two public hospitals (Sydney Eye Hospital and Westmead Hospital), as well as in private practice. I am a big believer in access to eye care for all Australians, which is why I commit to working in the public hospital system. The hours are long, often unpaid, and the clinics are tough (my Wednesday morning Sydney Eye Hospital clinic, manned by several doctors, routinely has 80 – 90 patients), but without this service people would go blind. There is a lot of bad publicity out there about doctors, often portraying them as greedy, but anyone at the coalface knows that this is wrong. A lot of us work really hard in a chronically underfunded public system to ensure people don’t suffer unnecessarily. A lot of us do these hours while juggling young families and multiple other commitments.

What made you interested in becoming an ophthalmologist?
Ophthalmology is a brilliant mix of both physician and surgeon, something difficult to obtain in other medical specialties. Ophthalmologists have the ability to restore or maintain vision, something that keeps people independent and working. In addition to Australia and New Zealand, RANZCO takes a particular interest in the eye health of those in the Asia Pacific region. We have highly trained and experienced doctors that regularly give their time to help those less fortunate and unable to access any eye care in their own countries.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of your career?
Giving back. Whether it is in Australia or overseas, having the skill and expertise to restore vision is incredible rewarding. One of the first overseas trips I was involved in was in East Timor and we had 900 patients turn up on the first day (now that is a busy clinic!) It is incredible satisfying (and does give me a warm, fuzzy feeling) to be able to give people back their vision and independence.

What is the biggest challenge you have had to overcome to get where you are today?
For reasons I don’t fully understand, women often don’t get the same encouragement to succeed. Finding the confidence and belief in myself to know I can achieve was an important step, and I was lucky to be mentored by both men and women along the way who believed in me. As a junior doctor I was told by an eye registrar I did not have what it took to be an ophthalmologist, and that I would never get into the training program, but I did my part one entry exams and got in anyway (it was incredibly satisfying to subsequently see him in a café in Surry Hills and tell him so). As a junior registrar I was told that I couldn’t operate, and that I would never be as good as the male ophthalmologists (because I was a girl), but I went ahead and qualified anyway. I am now the Chair of the Annual Scientific Meeting for Australia and New Zealand, and sit on the RANZCO Board, all while raising a toddler.

What do you know now that you wish you had known starting out?
When you are training to be an ophthalmologist, you are surrounded by colleagues and supervised by consultants, so there is always someone around to help you through difficult situations. As a new ophthalmologist I felt rather isolated, though over time I came to discover a rich network of people whom I could ask for advice or help if the need arose. It’s just knowing where to look and who to ask. It would be useful to link young ophthalmologists into these networks earlier.

What do you think needs to happen in order to press for progress in ophthalmology today?
It needs to start with the right culture. In the last few years the College has worked hard to set standards that let people know unethical and unfair behaviour won’t be tolerated. The next step is to see it put into practice. I have been an ophthalmologist for ten years now, and I believe the vast majority of ophthalmologists are decent people who want to work in a fair system. It is not easy to challenge the status quo, but each and every one of us needs to take responsibility for what we see. I have heard from countless colleagues who have sat in a meeting, seen a significant injustice occur, and rave on about it afterwards, but never call it out at the time. We need people to speak up when they see something wrong, and take responsibility for being part of the solution, rather than waiting for someone else to sort it out, because who knows when that “someone else” will come.