Frank Oberklaid
Reimagining Paediatrics

Interviewed and written by Avi Bart

“You can’t be too arrogant as a paediatrician, because every now and then when you think you’ve got life handled a child will urinate on you, or vomit on you. It’s hard to be arrogant in that context”.

Professor Frank Oberklaid, AM, OAM, MD, FRACP, DCH, is the Foundation Director of the Centre for Community Child Health at The Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne. Locally and internationally, he has combined clinical medicine as a developmental behavioural paediatrician with academia, advocacy, and policy work. He is especially interested in prevention and early intervention, and the use of research findings to inform public policy and service delivery.


TAKING A YEAR OFF

When you think of it, you go to high school, university, internship, you never get a chance to step back and just think. I took a year off to travel the world with my wife.


ON WORKING YOURSELF OUT

I have no wise words. Everyone's experience is so unique, and the times are different now than they were then as well. I guess I was never a long-term planner. To the extent that I've had a reasonable career, it's not as if I planned for that. My advice always is to hang in there, live for the moment. It's a cliché, I know. And to answer your question, you just have to hang in there and believe that things are going to work out.


WORK-LIFE BALANCE

I love my work. Who I am and what I do is exactly the same. It doesn't feel like work. I love the people I work with. I enjoy coming to work and we're doing some good stuff. That's terribly seductive. My family has paid a price and when we're up in awards and prizes, I always apologize to them, thank them, acknowledge them because I've robbed time from them and my own kids to invest in other people's kids.

On the other hand, I'm conscious that I haven’t natured the innermost parts of myself. My world has been focused externally. My previous boss, a brilliant Harvard guy, said to me, “you've got a choice. You can either go home with an empty briefcase or go home with a full briefcase.” He said, “if you want to build a career, it’s not a 40 hour week.” That's true. Work life balance is always a challenge and I'm a very poor role model for that.


ON FAILURE

My life's been about lots of failures as well. Failure to get a grant, failure to get a paper published, failed advocacy. I've got a very impressive CV of failed advocacy. But if you've got a spread of things, you're always doing okay in one, even if you're not doing okay in the others.


THE PRICE I'VE PAID

Well, poetry is a metaphor. I love writing. There's always more to do and there's never enough time. Everything I do, whether it's preparing a talk or writing a paper or doing some management stuff at the centre, takes longer than I'd imagine it would. I'm distractible because I'm curious and so that's been a challenge.

I've loved my career. I've been the luckiest person in the world. I've been very, very fortunate, but there’s a world outside medicine as well. There's an inner world that everybody has whether it's reading poetry, writing music, hobbies, whatever it happens to be – and balancing those two parts is just very, very challenging.

ON COMMUNITY CHILD HEALTH

In my introduction session to our trainees I always say developmental behavioural paediatrics is the opportunity to be creative. There's such a grey area in terms of there's no treatment, there’s only managing. There's the opportunity to really share yourself, to really be creative. In my area whether your management succeeds or not is often a function of the strength of the relationship you have with parents and with the child.


ON DOING THINGS DIFFERENTLY

We ask ourselves: how can we be working with community to prevent these problems? How can we build capacity in this family and community so they're better able to look after their kids? That's become my mantra and my philosophy. That's the philosophy of the Centre. All of our work has really been around working with community to try and stop kids getting sick. That was totally foreign when I first came back to Australia. I think its mainstream now.


A lot of that work is invisible. It's hard from an advocacy point of view, and I think that's where the Centre has made a big contribution in starting to change the orientation away from treating you towards developing relationships that can help build your capacity to parent, and about going into communities. The question is what does this family, what does community need in order to sustain themselves? That's much harder. The future is not about more and more and more and more. It's about different, and different is a much more challenging way of working than asking for more.


CONCLUDING REMARKS

We live in a complex world and there's a lot to be depressed about. Yet I guess I'm an optimist. I've built my centre often on the smell of an oily rag. I battled the institution and things worked out. I think I'm not a philosopher, but my final comments would be, it's really important to enjoy what you do. It's really important to get turned on by your work, and then the future just takes care of itself.

To learn more about Frank and his work: https://www.rch.org.au/ccch/media/Professor_Frank_Oberklaid/

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