AMA president Omar Khorshid on leading doctors out of the coronavirus pandemic

Doctor Omar Khorshid was just a fifth-year medical student when he had his first interaction with the Australian Medical Association.

Little did he know, he would go on to lead the AMA in Western Australia, and then be elected as its national president for the next two years.

It was 1996 when Dr Khorshid and his fellow medical students made some placards and formed a protest outside a national cabinet meeting being held in Perth.

“We were protesting against some changes to Medicare requirements, which were going to fundamentally change our futures as doctors,” Dr Khorshid recalls.

“By the end of the day, we were meeting with health minister Michael Wooldridge and that was a real demonstration of the reach of the AMA.”

Dr Khorshid says there is a limit to what doctors can do outside the policy arena.(Supplied)

Not long after the protest, just as Dr Khorshid was about to start work as an intern, the WA Government tried to impose individual workplace agreements on new doctors.

“It was only the AMA that came to us and said ‘Don’t sign that contract — you will have no rights to collective bargaining whatsoever and you’ll be the only people in the whole public sector who don’t have a union’,” he said.

As a result, the government backed down.

“We did keep that collective bargaining and keep the AMA as our representative and that has been really helpful over the subsequent couple of decades.”

Political drive sparked by experience

The industrial relations stoush was enough to pique the interest of a young doctor.

“Whereas a body like the AMA — which has tens of thousands of doctors on its books — is able to access the highest levels of government, is able to communicate through the media and get messages out and make a difference to public health, to make a difference to the funding of the health system and the way things are organised.”

But making any changes while a pandemic rages will take a lot more effort than some hastily-made placards and a protest.

“I made the decision to run for this role before the pandemic,” Dr Khorshid said.

A wide shot of AMA president Omar Khorshid sitting in a dark room speaking to an interviewer with his hands outstretched.
As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Dr Khorshid says he chose to stick with the new AMA role.(ABC News: Hugh Sando)

As pandemic rages, government attention is a silver lining

Dr Khorshid knows it is a challenging time to take up the position and that a lot of hard work lies ahead.

“There’s a whole lot of urgent stuff going on, but we need to be setting the agenda. We can see the problems in the future,” he said.

“The reality is, it’s all about COVID at the moment and we are struggling to talk about anything else.”

AMA WA president Dr Omar Khorshid speaks to journalists in the fern garden at WA Parliament.
Dr Khorshid says the AMA’s voice is trusted by the public.(ABC News: James Carmody)

But there has been a silver lining — Dr Khorshid says the government is listening.

“There is an understanding by government and by the public that expert opinions and advice should be listened to and acted on during this pandemic,” he said.

“We’ve seen with COVID just how important the AMA has been, not just sometimes to push the government, but also to assist the government in convincing the public that all these draconian measures were actually necessary, that it wasn’t the government overreaching.

Dr Khorshid said while the government had listened in the past, he had never seen it demonstrated so clearly as during COVID-19.

“If you look at telehealth, for example, which is something the AMA’s been advocating for a long time, it was on a kind of 10-year timeframe with the government, and then it was done in a matter of a couple of weeks.”

Pressure mounts over health and aged care funding

Dr Khorshid knows COVID-19 will continue to place extraordinary pressure on the health system.

“Due to the changing financial situation of Australians and of the governments, we’re really going to have to look at what health care is important, how we can deliver it efficiently and how can we make the health dollar go further,” Dr Khorshid said.

As governments, both state and federal, are handing out stimulus payments to various industries as part of their COVID-19 recovery plans, Dr Khorshid says the AMA will be there with cap in hand.

“It will be critical that the health system isn’t cut just to try and balance the budget because there’s not going to be a balancing of budgets coming out of COVID,” Dr Khorshid said.

“And I think health and aged care is an area where stimulus money can go — not just to stimulate the economy, but to improve people’s lives, improve productivity and there is some science behind the fact that investing in health is actually a good decision for governments coming out of recessions.”

A close-up head shot of AMA president Omar Khorshid wearing a full protective face helmet for surgery.
Dr Khorshid is eyeing broad reforms in health and aged care funding during his term.(Supplied)

Dr Khorshid hopes there may be some space next year to raise other issues in the sector.

“We’re not going to achieve change in all these areas, but my aim is to have these conversations well underway during my term, so that we’ve at least got the AMA ready to fight for these things,” he said.

And he has several things to achieve on his list.

And the big ones are?

“Trying to reform the way general practice is delivered and funded, so that the system supports high-quality primary care in general practice — right at the core of our joined-up health system, with the GP as the gateway to all the other, much more expensive care.

“I also want to look at our private hospital and private health insurance system, which at the moment is on fairly weak ground with falling private health insurance rates for five years in a row.

“We can see huge problems coming out of COVID in that sector, so we need some substantial reform because it is critical to our overall health system.”

A crocheted blanket hangs over a food trolley pushed up to a resident (obscured) in a chair at a nursing home.
Dr Khorshid says aged care is under-funded and does not have enough clinical expertise.(ABC Riverland: Catherine Heuzenroeder)

And third on his list is a substantial funding increase to the aged care and public hospital sectors.

“We don’t have a future aging population — it’s here right now, and our public hospitals are full,” he warns.

Fight against obesity crisis is personal

Dr Khorshid says the AMA must also be more proactive in advocating for specific public health measures.

High on that list will be a sugar tax.

sugar cane in bin
A sugar tax is high on Dr Khorshid’s agenda as AMA President.(ABC Rural: Tom Major)

“Our response to the obesity crisis in Australia is inadequate so far,” he said.

“If we don’t alter the amount of sugar that Australians are drinking in their fizzy drinks, eating in their junk food, we are going to continue to struggle more and more with rising rates of diabetes, obesity and all the complications that flow on from those two conditions.”

That’s a message close to Dr Khorshid’s heart.

During his early medical career, he developed a range of health issues.

“I slowly developed some health issues, blood pressure, cholesterol, reflux — all of which my father had, my brother had — I just assumed they were genetic.”

Lifestyle advice a game changer

Dr Khorshid began taking a range of medications to treat the issues.

“But they weren’t really working very well and I wasn’t super healthy.”

A head and shoulders shot of AMA president Omar Khorshid sitting in a dark room talking during an interview.
Dr Khorshid credits a visit to his GP with changing his life.(ABC News: Hugh Sando)

During that period, he was about to become a first-time father.

He says a visit to his GP changed his life.

“I kind of knew I was overweight, but I didn’t really think that all these health issues stemmed from that — I just assumed they were genetic.”

The GP suggested an intermittent fasting diet.

Six months later, Dr Khorshid was 20kg lighter and no longer needed the five medications for chronic health conditions he’d been taking for years.

That visit to a GP not only changed his life and health outcomes, it helped shape his views on health policy, particularly a national obesity strategy.

“I had no comprehension that those health issues could have been related and of course the PBS (Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme) would have been paying for my medications for six years, so that health expenditure on me has gone down because of that one conversation with a GP.”

It’s a conversation he now wants to have with policy makers, but he realises while all resources are focused on the pandemic, getting anyone to listen will be the struggle.

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