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Christmas in hospital: reasons for good cheer

There are myriad problems with our healthcare system but in general it is effective and efficient.

As a newly graduated doctor, it was not my intention to spend my last, precious Christmas, before beginning work, as a patient in Dandenong Hospital. Indeed, there is irony in that 12 days before starting work in that same hospital, I was fronting up to the emergency department with a jaw infection. 

And so I spent Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day on the emergency surgery waiting list as more unwell patients came and went. 

Sitting on the other side, as a patient, certainly gave cause for reflection. My first week as a doctor will see me working 7am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, in the colorectal surgery unit (let's not mention all the overtime). Soon, I will be admitting patients similar to myself, diagnosing diseases, prescribing antibiotics, telling families bad news and letting patients know that, unfortunately, their surgery has been delayed because a critical patient needed the only open operating theatre. 

It was, of course, extremely exasperating to fast all day, only to find my surgery had been cancelled because of an emergency caesarean or ruptured bowel. But knowing how the system works, and that I would be the doctor delivering similar bad news in future, tempered some of my frustration at having my Christmas ruined. It was also a light-bulb moment. 

Yes, there are issues with the Australian health system and medical profession. We have a non-existent preventative health system with skyrocketing rates of obesity and chronic illness. Our inaction in the climate-change department is already having significant health effects. Junior doctors have an (unspoken of) high prevalence of mental illness and burnout. There are cultural issues within the medical profession that need to be addressed.  

But despite all this, we have a generally functional, high-quality healthcare system. In how many countries in the world could you turn up to an emergency department over Christmas, wait only 48 hours for surgery, and have it all covered by Medicare? Very few indeed. 

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To top it off, Australia ranks in the top 10 countries worldwide with respect to life expectancy (82.2 years) and we do so relatively efficiently, spending only 8.8 per cent of GDP on healthcare.

So, as I left hospital with a hole in my jaw, I paused to reflect. Although my Christmas was ruined, so too was Christmas disrupted for the hundreds of doctors, nurses and hospital support staff across the country. These dedicated professionals were unable to spend this special time with their families and loved ones, but instead treated patient after patient. 

Even in a hospital, sometimes the most depressing of places (trust me, I know), there was festive cheer, with doctors wearing red and green scrubs, nurses wearing flashing Christmas lights and reindeer horns, and walls covered in tinsel. 

We have been warned that once we start working as doctors, it's a slow, inevitable process towards cynicism. But lying in a dreary Dandenong hospital ward, not once did I feel that the staff were unhappy to be there – rather, the opposite. They tried their hardest to make their patients' stay in hospital just that little bit better. 

It reminded me that as I continue as a junior doctor and through specialty training, it's important to remember the reasons that inspired me to study medicine and to appreciate the opportunity to care for others, even on Christmas Day. 

The holiday season is a time to spend with family and friends, but it's also a time for gratitude and contemplation; to be thankful for what we have, for the amazing doctors, nurses and support staff keeping hospitals across the country ticking, for our decent health system and for the health of our friends and families. To remember that even if our festive period did not go to plan, there is almost certainly someone else having an even worse day with a loved one critically ill in hospital. 

So:

Is our health system imperfect? Absolutely. 

Do doctors make mistakes (and even get sick)? Absolutely.

Is being a patient miserable and sometimes much worse? Absolutely. 

But let's remember we do have a generally great health system and, over this festive season, be grateful for what we have. I sure was. 

Timothy Martin is a recent Monash University medical graduate and intern at Monash Health with an interest in paediatrics, public health and healthcare improvement.

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