Doctor stories
October 28, 2020
Evolving the profession and your life

Ophthalmologist, teacher and 2020 Australian of the Year, Dr James Muecke, leads a fascinating life and career.

Talking to Medworld’s Dr Same Hazledine in this podcast, Dr James explains how his desire to cure people and make a difference led to his unconventional career.

He founded Vision Myanmar and Sight For All and has also been awarded a Queen’s Birthday Honour. A growing concern with public health and the proliferation of sugar in the modern diet is his latest mission. Since becoming Australian of the Year, Dr James has used this public platform to share information about diet and preventable diseases – he says public health initiatives are one of the reasons we’re all living longer.

“Critical prevention is in our profession,” he says.

“I've been campaigning about the ravages of sugar and type two diabetes in our society these days, because I was seeing patients every year, seeing normal patients who were losing vision, going blind due to their diabetes (in particular type two diabetes, which makes up 90% of all the cases) […] This is a disease that shouldn't be happening at all.”

Don’t have time to listen to the full podcast? Here are some of Dr James’ key ideas about evolving your own life, and the world, through medicine.

When you feel burnt-out, don’t be afraid to make a change

During his internship, Dr James felt disillusioned with medicine. The long hours and dealing with chronic illnesses where alleviation rather than curing was the order of the day left him feeling burnt-out. He decided to take time off to travel and work and this led to him working in Africa where humanitarian work reignited his passion for medicine and public health.

“For the first time, I was really able to cure people and it was so inspiring. I did my morning ward rounds and just immediately knew which patients were better, were ready for discharge. Actually be getting brought back to life in their beds and have a big smile on their faces. And you just knew that they were ready to go home. They wanted to go home. And it was something that was so much more appealing to me than the medicine that I'd experienced in that first year as an intern.”

Share your skills

Dr James has found sharing his skills a rewarding way to ensure that the work continues – even when he can’t operate any more. He saw a need for a trained pediatric ophthalmologist in Myanmar and convinced authorities to let a young ophthalmologist train with him and his colleagues in Australia. A children’s eye unit was set up in Myanmar and that doctor now provides close to 30,000 treatments every year.

“What's even more impressive is that he then used his expertise and competence to train his own colleagues. In 2015, he finished training a second pediatric ophthalmologist in the country. He now trains at least two every single year. So, it shows you the sustainability of what we do, the scalability of what we do [at Sight for All].”

Keep a day free

“The money will come. You will have more than enough money to survive, and have a very enjoyable life. But the thing which will be the icing on the cake of your life is the opportunity to give back.”

Dr James reminds us that doctors have the opportunity to earn good money. But to keep your passion alive for medicine you should do something that fuels your life in a different way. He recommends keeping off one day per week to commit to “other things”, whether that’s research, training, humanitarian work or something different altogether.

It’s up to us to educate patients about sugar

Dr James talks about the ‘Five A’s of Sugar Toxicity’;

Addiction – it activates the reward center in our brains

Alleviation – we use it to alleviate stress and to make us feel better  

Accessibility – sugar is cheap and it is everywhere

Addition – around 75% of food and drinks have added sugar

Advertising – the world is flooded with ads for sugary products “often in the most insidious and predatory way”

It’s a big thing and something that governments aren’t overly keen to tackle because sugar generates revenue. But, doctors can make a difference. Dr James says he’d like to “shout from the rooftops” that type two diabetes IS reversible in many patients.

“It's not all doom and gloom, there are some important positive messages here as well […] Type two diabetes is preventable, but also really critical. And this is something that many doctors are not aware of. […] There are over a hundred controlled clinical trials to support that, though a low carb diet, you can reverse type two diabetes and one a very good paper showed a 56% reversal in a 10 week period using a very low carb diet.”

Keep your interests broad in case you can’t do the thing you love one day…

Dr James Muecke has a neurological condition called Focal Dystonia, which means he is no longer able to perform surgeries. His right-hand function has diminished and he’s only able to use his left hand for most tasks.

“It was pretty, pretty hard hitting, particularly when I've spent so much time and effort preparing to get into medicine, into surgery and into ophthalmology training,” he says. But he stays positive and reminds us to engage in lots of different activities and interests:

“Have other interests in your life and keep time off in your week for other interests. I've always done that because you don't know what's ahead of you. I enjoy doing all sorts of other things. I'm a keen photographer. I've actually been a music producer, I’ve created a number of albums. I've written some books. I've done all sorts of things to keep myself amused and interested.

“[…] I didn't do it in the thought that one day, if I have to give up medicine, I can pull back on these other things. But now that I am faced with my career and I've done all these other interesting things, I could continue on in my humanitarian work and I have all these other interests […] I've started to stitch together a career after medicine, which draws on all of these things that I've been doing for the last 20 years.”

Want to hear more from Dr James Muecke?  Follow him here:

Facebook: @Dr James Muecke

Instagram: @drjamesmuecke

LinkedIn: @James Muecke AM

YouTube: Dr James Muecke

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Dr James Muecke

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