Surgeon Dr Kingsley Faulkner makes his mark away from the operating table, advocating for public health
Early in his medical career, Dr Kingsley Faulkner spent just over a year as a district medical officer with the Royal Flying Doctor Service in Western Australia’s Pilbara region.
At the time the region, which included the Wittenoom blue asbestos mine, was being developed as a major iron ore mining area.
It was an experience that made its mark: “It fired up my interest in preventive medicine and the need for doctors to fearlessly stand up and be counted when there is powerful evidence to support that stand”, he says.
“Wittenoom is probably the greatest mining and industrial disaster in Australia’s history because early medical warnings were repeatedly ignored and that mine has contributed to so many preventable deaths. Many more will die in the future because of it.”
Throughout his career Dr Faulkner has combined clinical roles as a surgeon with this interest in preventive medicine.
He has held a number of senior surgical positions, including head of general surgery at the Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in Perth. He was also president of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons from 2001 to 2003.
He has a long history of health advocacy, including being chair of the Australian Council on Smoking and Health (ACOSH) from 1983 to 1990. Dr Faulkner says ACOSH has had a 30-year history of working with other health organisations to successfully lobby governments to introduce policies aimed at reducing tobacco use.
Now vice-president of ACOSH, Dr Faulkner has been pleased to see the plain packaging legislation pass through the Federal Parliament with bipartisan support, and the recent High Court decision supporting that legislation. “Other countries are now looking closely at Australia’s example”, he says.
Dr Faulkner says he is attracted to health advocacy roles because of the chance to improve the health of many more people than just the patient in front of him in a consulting room or operating theatre.
“If you are serious about being a doctor, then you should also be serious about preventive medicine”, he says.
“As a surgeon I can treat a certain number of people in my professional lifetime. You try to do so as well as you can. But when around 20 000 Australians were dying every year from smoking-related diseases and I could join others in doing something about it, then that seemed a good use of some of my professional time”, he says.
Much of his health advocacy work focuses on the health impacts of environmental challenges. For the past year he has been chair of Doctors for the Environment Australia, an organisation that aims to alert people to the health consequences of environmental threats, including climate change.
He says these threats range from direct health impacts, such as the respiratory, cardiac and even neurological consequences of mining and burning coal, to the increase in vector-borne diseases, such as dengue fever and malaria, as temperatures rise.
Dr Faulkner, who grew up on a farm in the Porongurup region in Western Australia, has witnessed the effect of environmental degradation, including increased salinity and reduced rainfall, in many of the state’s agricultural regions.
“An editorial in The Lancet in 2009 named climate change as the greatest threat to health in the 21st century. You cannot ignore something like that.”
Dr Faulkner is concerned that Australia’s media and politicians often trivialise, manipulate and politicise discussion on climate change, when the vast majority of informed scientists agree on the need for urgent action.
He says Doctors for the Environment Australia support a carbon pricing mechanism. “If this country is really serious about reducing fossil fuel usage, then we need some economic mechanism to help drive it.”
Dr Faulkner also tries to make a wider contribution to medicine through his involvement in teaching a new generation of doctors. He is a professor in the School of Medicine at the University of Notre Dame Australia and an honorary clinical professor with the Department of Surgery at the University of Western Australia.
He is encouraged by the enthusiasm, intelligence and drive of his students.
“The next generation of doctors is going to be not only more electronically skilled but also more aware of future environmental and other community-wide health problems”, he says. “They will assess the evidence, demand and help draft effective policies, and assist in the research and development of new technologies to tackle the challenges which undoubtedly lie ahead.”
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