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From IT to medicine: an unconventional path to becoming a doctor

While you might imagine doctors to be completely single-focused, in reality, they are just like everyone else with a number of different passions pulling them in multiple directions. Starting with a career in IT isn’t the usual path to becoming a doctor, but it’s not uncommon.

We spoke to three medical students about what drove them to pivot from IT to medicine.

An engineer turned doctor

Chris Culhane always had one eye on a career in medicine, but when he finished school, he decided he was ultimately more passionate about engineering. Completing a Bachelor of Science and a Bachelor of Engineering, Culhane started full-time employment at a large medical device firm as a design engineer.

‘This work was pretty interesting and, for a newly graduated engineering student, I was given a remarkable amount of freedom designing instruments used in orthopaedic surgery,’ he says.

After two years in the role, Culhane decided to take a break and spend six months riding a motorbike from Los Angeles to the bottom of South America. ‘It’s admittedly cliché, but during that trip, I realised I wasn’t going to find satisfaction with my impact on the world if I stayed on my current track,’ he says. ‘So upon returning home, I applied to sit the GAMSAT.’

Culhane says his previous career taught him how to interact, negotiate and manage conflict professionally. ‘Learning how to quickly parse information, ascertain what’s important and not stress about the rest is also something that can only be learnt working in a fast-paced environment,’ he says. ‘Applying this to study means less time wasted on small details that aren’t going to be examined and managing your time effectively to ensure a life outside of medicine.’

Culhane now hopes to become an emergency medicine physician. ‘Emergency medicine is attractive due to its fast-paced nature, direct and acute contact with patients, and a wide variety of presentations,’ he says. ‘It should keep me occupied for a while yet.’

From MBA to MD

After completing a Bachelor of Business Systems, Lee Robbins spent time in a global, multinational firm before moving to a smaller consulting group. ‘I was involved in the post-merger technology integration of superannuation funds and administrators, as well as retail banking,’ he explains.

Returning to study to complete a Master of Business Administration, Robbins moved into product management, first for an Australian/UK business that provided software for the aged and community care industry and then to a large US-based software vendor.

Despite career success, Robbins became increasingly disenchanted by the industry. ‘For the first time I really started evaluating what I wanted to achieve out of my career, above and beyond advancing up the ranks,’ he says.

It was some personal experiences that planted the seed for Robbins to consider a career in medicine. He was first thrust into a medical environment when his infant son had a seizure – a terrifying experience for any parent. Soon after, his grandfather became very unwell.

One day while visiting his grandfather, Robbins was mistaken for a doctor and it all became clear. ‘This was my eureka moment,’ he says. ‘I realised that medicine might tick all of the boxes that I had been thinking about.’

'Learning how to quickly parse information, ascertain what's important and not stress about the rest is also something that can only be learnt working in a fast-paced environment.'

Chris Culhane,
Medicine graduate, Deakin University

Robbins says the negotiation, communication and analysis skills he learnt in the business world are directly transferrable to communication with patients. ‘The core problem-solving skills and techniques can be equally useful when trying to understand a specific body system or identify the underlying pathology,’ he says.

His advice to young people interested in pursuing a career in medicine from an IT background is to know that it is possible, something he was unsure of when he started researching it for himself.

Robbins still has a strong interest in technology and believes that there is scope to improve upon the use of technology in healthcare. ‘Ultimately, I would like to blend aspects of both careers together,’ he says.

A self-taught software developer

For some people, a medical career has been plotted and planned since childhood. For Scott Anderson, this wasn’t the case. In fact, Anderson didn’t finish secondary school. When a lucrative career offer lured him away from his studies, school just seemed unnecessary.

Anderson spent 15 years in the IT industry before he started to long for something new. ‘IT wasn’t giving me the meaningful interactions I wanted,’ Anderson explains. ‘Ultimately, I was just improving the efficiency of businesses, i.e. making people money.’

He wanted to find a job that was better aligned with the things he cared about. ‘I saw a lot of crossover with what doctors do and with what I was already doing: fixing technical issues with incompletely-understood systems,’ he says. ‘The difference was improving people’s health is something I could actually feel good about.’

Just before his 30th birthday, Anderson decided to walk away from the IT world. ‘I figured if I didn’t give it a go I’d spend the next 30-odd years regretting it,’ he says.

The career change hasn’t been without challenges. ‘Having a family and responsibilities I find it’s more difficult to really engage with the other students and get really into the “med bubble”,’ he explains. And some of the crossover skills from IT have been a bit of a hindrance. ‘I’ve had to unlearn my own methods and relearn how to do them in a way that’s better aligned with what’s expected in medicine.’

This aside, Anderson knows he’s on the right path. ‘There are so many specialties that I love aspects of,’ he says. ‘It’s hard to accept sometimes that there just aren’t enough years left in my life to do all of them.’

Anderson’s career advice to those considering medicine is to get to know yourself really well. ‘The better you understand your own strengths and weaknesses, the better equipped you’ll be to excel at whatever you’re doing,’ he says. ‘Also, if you really understand what motivates you, you’ll be far more prepared to deal with those moments when you just hit the wall.’

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