A gap year spent in China changed the career path of Dr Anna Foley
A YEAR in China before committing to advanced training changed gastroenterologist Dr Anna Foley’s life.
After completing her MB BS at Monash University in 2001, Dr Foley did her internship and residency at The Alfred, before moving to Sydney for a stint at Concord Repatriation General Hospital until she earned her fellowship to the Royal Australasian College of Physicians.
“Up until then I was going to do rheumatology,” she tells the MJA.
“I had a fantastic mentor in Sydney in rheumatology. He was a great mentor and helped me to formulate my plans.”
But then came her year in China.
“I had almost committed to doing rheumatology but changed my mind during [that] year,” Dr Foley says.
“In China I realised it was time to separate from [my mentor] and meet new people. I also did a bit of general practice there, which put me off a little bit. I saw a lot of chronic back pain and it was a lot of the same thing every day.
“That was misinformed of me, but nevertheless [it shaped my thinking].”
On her return to Melbourne, Dr Foley committed instead to gastroenterology, and went back to The Alfred and Box Hill Hospitals to complete her advanced training.
“I had always been interested in gastroenterology — it’s a nice combination of different skills and there’s lots of communication with the patients.
“The patients are often very challenging. They’ve got long-term illness, and there’s a psychological overlay to much of it.
Dr Foley finished her gastroenterology training in 2009 and started in practice in 2010. She can be found at Brighton Gastroenterology on Melbourne’s bayside, and also has public appointments at both Box Hill and The Alfred, providing services in general gastroenterology and specialist functional gut disorder clinics. She has a keen interest in inflammatory bowel disease and performs gastroscopy, colonoscopy and capsule endoscopy.
“It’s been what I expected,” she says. “I was familiar with the hospital and the people and I had a really good advanced training experience. It prepared me quite well for practice.”
According to Dr Foley, there is no shortage of gastroenterologists. “In fact it’s quite a difficult program to get in to.”
One thing that has changed for the better since she started her advanced training is the gender balance in the specialty.
“It was very male dominated,” Dr Foley says. “It almost seemed like you had to be the son of a top gastroenterologist in order to get in to the training program. I almost shied away from it for that reason.
“But now, pleasingly, that’s been corrected.”
And just as well, as Dr Foley says female gastroenterologists are “absolutely essential for the field”.
“There are plenty of patients who couldn’t say to a man what they can to a woman. Older women with fecal incontinence, for example. Some have been to male gastroenterologists before and never mentioned it.
“A lot of teenage girls with functional gut disorders, irritable bowel syndrome … they’d rather speak to a woman.”
About 30% to 35% of people have a functional gut disorder through their life and it’s more common in women, says Dr Foley.
“It’s incredibly common. Whether the incidence is increasing or if there’s just greater awareness, is difficult to say. We’re certainly more interested in treating it than we used to be.”
Dr Foley and her husband have two young children. A “rich family life” and many outside interests are very important, she says, to a balanced life.
“We love to travel, experience the world with the children. I’m interested in art — I paint — see a lot of performing arts, and I love to cook. It has to be something special, though — not something you have every night of the week.”
Despite going in a different direction than the one suggested by her rheumatology mentor, Dr Foley believes mentorship should be an essential part of the support system for students and doctors-in-training.
“Mentors are such a great asset,” she says. “I think we’ve missed the boat in medicine with that a bit. Mentorship needs to be more formalised — matching people with appropriate mentors. A good mentor can have such a great influence, helping young people to make better choices.”
Dr Foley’s next 5 years will be about “reinvention”, she says. “It’s important to have other dialogues, constantly dream of reinvention.
“It’s good to stay engaged and on your toes.”
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