Interview with A/Prof Heather Mack for International Women's Day 2019

international womens day 20193 

A/Prof Heather Mack 

A/Prof Heather Mack (BMedSc, MBBS, MBA, PhD, FRANZCO, FRACS) heads Visual Electrodiagnostics at Eye Surgery Associates. She trained in electrodiagnostics, undertaking a two year Fellowship at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary/Harvard Medical School. A/Prof Mack is an Associate of Eye Surgery Associates where she practices ophthalmology with a particular interest in electrodiagnostics and retinal disorders. The most common visual electrodiagnostic test is the electroretinogram (ERG). The ERG test of the retina is similar to the electrocardiogram (ECG) test of the heart. Visual electrodiagnostics, also known as visual electrophysiology, measures these very small signals both in the eye and in the brain. These tests are offered by A/Prof Mack at East Melbourne, and can help measure how well the retina and optic nerve work, allowing diagnosis of some disorders of the retina and brain. In 2018 A/Prof Mack was elected RANZCO President, becoming the College’s first female President. 

1. When you were first starting out in medical school, were there any female leaders who inspired you to get into medicine/ophthalmology? Who are they and what was it about them that inspired you? 

I started medical school in a time of male dominance, with only about 30% female students. Professor Priscilla Kincaid-Smith was inspiring as she was the first woman professor appointed to a personal chair of medicine at the University of Melbourne in 1975, chair of the AMA and president of the World Medical Association in 1993. She pursued research combined with clinical care at my hospital, Royal Melbourne Hospital. She achieved work-life balance I saw first hand as her sons were my contemporaries in medical school and I spent time on their family farm on university holidays. In ophthalmology Dame Ida Mann was an inspiring leader of the past. I was very much encouraged when Glen Gole gave me a copy of her book ‘The Chase’ in 1987 when I was applying to the RACO training program, and I have kept the book and his note to this day.

2. Did you have a female mentor that helped you on your path? What knowledge did they impart on you? 

In the early years RANZCO had very few female leaders. I was mentored to join the training program by Dr Dick Galbraith who showed me that ophthalmology is part of medicine as a whole, and that we can achieve wonderful and measurable outcomes for our patients. Many other senior male ophthalmologists have guided and continue to guide me during the challenges of presidency including Justin O’Day and Frank Martin.

3. What is the biggest challenge that you have had to overcome to get where you are today? 

The biggest challenges were setting my own path and chasing my own goals. When I completed training, sub-specialities were in their infancy. Further training in USA (rather than UK), PhD studies and MBA studies were unusual, but these have helped me develop my thinking right across clinical ophthalmology, clinical research, ophthalmic education and administrative aspects of ophthalmology.

4. This year’s theme for IWD is ‘Better the balance, better the world’ – what would you change about the ophthalmology sector to achieve better balance?

Ophthalmology needs to reflect the population we serve, so in terms of women we need to aim for 50% of ophthalmologists, including 10% Asian and 3% Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander in Australia, and 15% Māori in New Zealand. This will not be achieved by mandatory quotas, but by supporting applicants, trainees and Fellows so that all ophthalmologists have the opportunity to contribute to their maximum potential. RANZCO is very active in this space.

5. What advice do you have for future women in ophthalmology? 

My advice is to set your own goals and work towards them. Reach out to your fellow women and they will support you. Use all the supports and opportunities available through the College, such as the Leadership Development Program and scholarships. In practice consider always the best interests of your patients, and the money will ‘work itself out’. Finally, consider how you will contribute to the profession of ophthalmology. Many avenues are possible including teaching, clinical research, overseas ophthalmology and through working for the College. You will find, as I have, that working for the profession is very rewarding and a win-win-win-win for your patients, the college and you personally.