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Q&A with Dr. Abeyna Jones, Occupational Physician and Entrepreneur

Created May 17, 2017 by Gloria Onwuneme
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Dr. Abeyna Jones is an occupational medicine registrar at King’s College Hospital and the Medical Director of Medic Footprints, a social enterprise for doctors and medical students promoting alternative careers and wellbeing. She is also a Fellow with the NHS Clinical Entrepreneur Fellowship, devised to support UK doctors develop their enterprises whilst in clinical training and practice.

Dr. Jones received her medical degree from the University of Nottingham (2006) and a Postgraduate Certificate in Medical Education from the University of Edinburgh (2011).

Prior to becoming an occupational medicine registrar, Dr. Jones trained as a urology surgeon in various posts across the UK. Between 2010 and 2012, she took a sabbatical and worked as a Medical Officer in General Surgery and Trauma at the Ngwelezana Hospital in South Africa. While there, she revived outreach work to peripheral hospitals in KwaZulu-Natal and produced the hospital’s Trauma Protocol Document. In 2016, she completed the NHS Leadership Academy’s Ready Now Programme, designed to increase the number of NHS leaders from underrepresented ethnic backgrounds.

Dr. Jones has written a number of feature articles for BMJ Careers and the Huffington Post, and has been published in Urology, South African Journal of Surgery, Journal of Clinical Urology, Urology Annals, and ecancer. During her time in South Africa, she also wrote and edited the Ngwelezana Casebook in Emergency Surgery and Trauma (2011) for doctors looking to familiarize themselves with surgical pathologies seen in Kwazulu-Natal.

When did you first decide to become a doctor? Why?

While at school, I was quite interested in physiology and how the body works. Medicine also seemed to be very highly respected as a career pathway among peers, family, and friends.

How/why did you choose the medical school you attended?

I chose to apply to places that were in, or relatively close to, London. Besides Nottingham, I chose King’s, Cambridge, Manchester. Most Nottingham students are extra-bright, the campus is lovely, the city is great, and the actual course itself has a good reputation.

What surprised you the most about your medical studies?

I didn’t really enjoy the first few years from an educational perspective; it covered foundational stuff and wasn’t taught in a way that matched my style of learning. I enjoyed anatomy; we dissected full cadavers but found I didn’t really understand this fully until I was working as a surgeon and studying for the membership exams. A lot of medical school involved learning by rote and passing exams, but I learn by doing and discussing, going through notes and reading books, not by sitting in lectures. I personally found that the real learning started when I was actually working. Applying the knowledge helped me retain the relevant information.

Why did you decide to specialize in occupational medicine?

A lot of my career so far has effectively been testing various specialties to see if they are a good fit for me.

I completed my Core Surgical Training, worked in trauma surgery in South Africa, and later completed some higher surgical training in Urology. The switch to occupational medicine came about because my interests and needs were changing as I grew older. Initially, I had the energy and the drive to work night shifts, however as I got older, I realized that night time working wasn’t for me. I was less interested in the front-line work, and more in population health, getting to the root cause rather than fire-fighting. Occupational health is quite timely, as health and well-being are high on the political agenda. The specialty itself has a business element to it as well.

Has being an occupational health doctor met your expectations? Please explain.

Occupational medicine is a really diverse career pathway. My training job provides invaluable exposure in supporting NHS healthcare workers, however not necessarily representative of what I want to do in further down the line in my career within occupational medicine. There are trainees in various industries and companies outside of the NHS.

What do you like most and least about being an occupational health doctor?

I like the fact that you really get to spend time with your patients; you get an hour. You take a holistic approach. In the management referrals, you are the intermediary between the client and the manager. Your work is advisory and supportive. You use a lot of the soft skills within the organization. There are a lot of business-like features, such as tendering contracts, bidding.

It isn’t in my particular job, but you can leave the office and parachute into different organizations and departments and see what they do, which is fascinating. It’s incredibly rewarding to be able to support clients in staying at work and to understand the various work-related issues. You wind up working with a variety of people in that process.

The problems I am having now is that I find my work too limited, seeing as it’s a training post. Right now, I’m mostly seeing cases of stress, depression, anxiety. I don’t have much exposure to toxicology, industry-related matters. I’d like to learn more about working in oil and gas, travel medicine, shipping, aviation and more. The extent of exposure also depends on who you’re working for as a trainee.

In your position now, knowing what you do, what would you say to yourself back when you started your medical career?

Explore and take your time. However, I’ve enjoyed what I’ve done, and I feel stronger from a general medical perspective because of the breadth of my experience. I don’t think I would change my trajectory so far, at least not too drastically.

Describe a typical day as a doctor—walk me through a day in your shoes.

My day starts at 8.30am. Generally speaking, I spend most of my time seeing management referrals, i.e. managers referring clients (called clients as we don’t treat them). Clients either have a health problem that is affecting their work, or they have been off work for a period of time. Sometimes I attend case conferences with the managers and the employees’ unions about their work. You support the nurses who have walk-in clinics for occupational dermatitis or needle-stick injuries.

We have a multi-professional department, with physiotherapists and occupational therapists. During consultations, we signpost, tell clients where to get support, get consent to speak with their managers and their GPs or relevant specialists. So it’s important to have a good, broad understanding of medicine before going into occupational medicine.

What part of medical training itself prepared you best for entrepreneurship?

In order to be an entrepreneur, you have to be creative; you have to be able to think outside the box. I think those are more personal attributes. But the breadth of skills medical students and doctors learn are very transferable. Teamwork, analytics, doing exams all the time and learning really quickly, communicating, planning, policy – they’re all relevant.

I think that basic finance should be taught in medical school. As a doctor, you don’t really think of the NHS as a business. It’s transactional, but you’re not thinking about the numbers behind hospital management and income generation.

Historically, in the NHS, innovation wasn’t encouraged, but that’s slowly changing thanks to the NHS Clinical Entrepreneur Scheme.

Describe a typical day at Medic Footprints/other company —walk me through a day in your shoes.

There’s no typical day! As Medical Director, I spend a lot of time strategizing, conducting market research, and performing administrative and organizational tasks. There’s a lot of networking involved, there’s a lot of relationship development. That’s part of the business strategy; it is about the community and the relationships. You’re thinking more big-picture, into the future, than about the immediate transactional moments. I initially tried to do everything myself, but after a while you have to delegate. Even delegating is hard, because you have to spend time supporting the team that you’ve developed, which increases your managerial load. But it’s also rewarding to allow someone develop the same skills that you’ve developed, to enable them to seize their true potentials.

What do you like most about being involved in entrepreneurship?

I like the fact that it’s like working on a blank canvas. You can paint a picture and change that picture any time you like. There are always different challenges, and there is so much to learn. You can be as creative as you like. It enables you to connect with a vast network of people and support systems. You help the business grow, it needs more input, you continually uncover its potential. But you have to be passionate about it, otherwise it will die. One of the challenges we at Medic Footprints has now is to make it self-sustaining. I don’t intend to stay forever, so a lot of work at the moment is focused on sustainability and succession planning.

What do you like least about being involved in entrepreneurship?

I love the challenges, but they can get you down. It can potentially be quite lonely and frustrating. Monetizing your passion is an ongoing challenge. There is no rulebook, so coming from medicine where everything is laid out for you, that can be really challenging.

How do you balance your various professional roles?

Because I’m effectively wearing multiple hats, I can’t say “this is my structured day at Medic Footprints” or “this is my structured day as an occupational health physician”. There’s a bit of everything going on all the time which is a challenge to balance, hence why it’s really important to establish boundaries for everything you do.

On average, how many hours a week do you work? How many hours of sleep do you get per night?

I really couldn’t quantify the number of hours I work in total, but my occupational medicine role is 8:30 -5 pm on Monday to Friday. I aim for a minimum of seven, eight hours of sleep.

How do you balance work and your life outside of work?

I timetable everything. I make sure I have free time. I try to set boundaries. I recognised early on what my tired looks like, how I feel. I ensure that I don’t overwork once I reach that point.

One of the things you can suffer from is mental fatigue, as a medic, and as someone who is developing a business. The boundaries can get blurred; you go home and you’re still working. I have difficulty switching off. Even as I’m sleeping, my mind is still going. So I seek out other activities that don’t constantly consume all of my cognitive, higher functions, like the occasional long hike.

What types of outreach/volunteer work do you do, if any?

Medic Footprints work is essentially voluntary at the moment because all the revenue we generate is reinvested in the business. I also do a lot of public speaking, and represent Medic Footprints at careers fairs. I support and mentor people looking to diversify their careers.

From your perspective, what is the biggest challenge in healthcare today? Please explain.

The biggest challenge of healthcare today is keeping up with the progression in health care technology, because innovation comes at a cost. For public health systems like the NHS, it’s very difficult to keep up with that financially while continuing to democratize health. Another key challenge is maintaining the health of staff working in the public healthcare sector, remunerating them fairly for their time and efforts.

I also think we need to nurture the right leaders for our healthcare system; it shouldn’t be the same people jumping from post to post.

What’s your final piece of advice for students interested in pursuing a career in occupational medicine?

Traditionally, occupational medicine is a specialty you go into later in your career. So I would advise you to get at least four or five years of a mix of medical specialties. In order to get into occupational medicine, you need to have either core surgical, medical, psychiatric, GP or public health training to get in at ST3 (specialist trainee 3) level.

I would also advise you to go and shadow an occupational health physician. My shadowing experience was good; I got to parachute into various organizations like Citibank one day, Sky the next day and even the Foreign Commonwealth Office.

Where do you see the future of medicine at large?

As clinicians, we’ll be using technology more and more for diagnosis. Our soft skills will remain key: communication, supporting the patient. But we need to position ourselves as leaders, and we need to diversify our skills, so we don’t become an obsolete profession as AI capacities increase.

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