Leading the way

Cate Swannell
Med J Aust
Published online: 19 May 2014

Jessica Dean is the new president of the Australian Medical Students’ Association in a year where the focus is on the mental health of tertiary students, fixing the internship crisis and improving the anatomy curricula

Jessica Dean has many things on her plate — she is studying medicine and law at Monash University in Melbourne, is co-founder of The Nookie Project (yes, you read that correctly) and this year, she is president of the Australian Medical Students’ Association (AMSA).

Despite deferring her studies for a year in order to concentrate on her AMSA duties, Jessica has also taken on a full-time Honours research project focusing on the bioethics of critical care decision making.

“I’m not someone who’s very good at doing nothing”, she tells the MJA in what is possibly the understatement of the year.

Activism has been part of Jessica’s make-up since childhood. As a member of Netzer Australia, a progressive Jewish youth group, she spent a gap year between high school and university in Israel as a volunteer paramedic.

She has been national events coordinator for Youth Empowerment Against HIV/AIDS (YEAH), was executive producer and weekly presenter of the Naughty Rude Show, a sexual health advice radio show, and is currently co-chair of Red Party Victoria, a “non-profit, medical student-run organisation aiming to raise awareness and funds for HIV/AIDS on local and global scales”.1-3

And then, there’s The Nookie Project.4

“That’s my baby”, Jessica says. “Another medical student, Zoe Stewart, and I realised that in medical school you get taught the nuts and bolts of sexual health, but you’re not taught the language that young people use — the jargon — or how to navigate the complexities of sexual health issues with young people.

“We run workshops and seminars for doctors and medical students on the delivery of sexual health education to young people, and appropriate language, manner and approach in this context.”

The project is also looking to launch a mobile onsite testing service for chlamydia, which is designed to do the rounds of music festivals and other youth-oriented events.

Jessica’s biggest commitment this year is, however, AMSA and its plans for the next 12 months.

“We have three major issues we want to focus on this year”, she says.

“The biggest is the mental health of tertiary students, particularly medical students.

“Medical students are a good instrument for peer education about mental health because we’re involved and interested in health, and so we can be a catalyst for the broader student population.”

AMSA is working with universities to assess the mental health services provided to students and to make sure students’ voices are heard in the process.

“The research says that one in five medical students have had suicidal ideation in the past 12 months”, Jessica says. “We have a higher rate of minor psychological problems than the general community, and one in three suffers emotional burnout.

“Those are alarming numbers.”

Apart from mental health, AMSA will also be targeting the internship crisis for action.

“We’re changing our approach”, Jessica says. “We’ve been meeting with the Department [of Health] and we’re trying to move the system to be representative of the workforce needs.

“In the past the number of medical students has been correlated with the need for more doctors. That doesn’t work unless there are more training positions for those medical students.

“The reception from the Department has been very encouraging and we seem to be on the same page but, as with any system change, it’s challenging.

“But we need to move away from the reactive bailout at the last minute.”

AMSA’s third target for action is, unsurprisingly, medical education, but particularly the anatomy curricula around the country.

“Doctors need a certain degree of competence in anatomy”, says Jessica. “But, for example, there are different levels of access to cadavers.

“We need to make sure that funding doesn’t become an obstacle to quality medical education. Medical education needs to be exempt from those sorts of fiscal pressures.”

It’s a busy life, and it’s likely there will be no shortage of opportunities for Jessica once her term as president is over and she finishes her last year of medical studies, and her last six subjects of legal studies. So where is she planning to go next?

“That’s the one question I struggle to answer”, she says.

“Health policy fascinates me, so maybe that’s the way I’ll go.”

AMSA could be nurturing a future health minister, or better yet, a public health advocate with a knack for bringing the younger generation along with her.

“Young people are the impetus for social change, for changing the social norms.”

1. Youth Empowerment Against HIV/AIDS

2. The Naughty Rude Show

3. The Red Party Victoria

4. The Nookie Project

  • Cate Swannell



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