Melbourne GP Dr Mukesh Haikerwal has received the nation’s highest honour in the 2018 Australia Day honours list.
Dr Haikerwal was appointed as a Companion of the Order of Australia in recognition of his outstanding service to the community of western Melbourne and his leadership in a series of professional roles.
The popular UK-trained doctor, who emigrated to Australia in 1990, says his public advocacy work in fields as diverse as mental health and the take-up of e-health systems stems from his roots in community medicine.
“General practice has always been the driver,” he said.
“It is what has kept me going, to see what is happening on the local level and what needs to be done to make things better for my people, locally, and nationally, and also internationally. It has progressed from there.
“The daily grind – really, it’s not a grind, but a joy – is what grounds me.”
Dr Haikerwal came to prominence in medical politics as Victorian branch president of the AMA before standing unopposed for the federal AMA leadership in 2005 on a platform of promoting doctors’ involvement in hospital management.
In 2011, he was elected chair of the World Medical Association, which oversees ethical guidance for nearly 100 national medical bodies. Among other high-profile roles, he served as National Clinical Lead at the National e-Health Transition Authority, forerunner of the Australian Digital Health Agency.
But personal experiences of loss and tragedy have also guided his career, including an increasingly vocal role as a champion of doctors’ health.
“Unfortunately, like most people in my profession, we all know someone through medical school or junior doctor years who has lost their life to suicide … it hurts very badly,” Dr Haikerwal said.
A board member at beyondblue, a national support service for sufferers of depression and anxiety, Dr Haikerwal is passionate about overturning the stigma attached to mental-health issues that often deters doctors from seeking help.
“What we saw last year was the wonderful families speaking out – not calling it a blemish. We need to understand how it happens and how we can reduce it,” he said.
“Some of the drivers are within the profession, some of them are in the culture, some of them in the administration, some in the compliance processes. We’ve got more to do this year.”
Dr Haikerwal has been involved with beyondblue since 2009 and played a key advisory role in its groundbreaking 2013 report on the mental health of Australian medical students and doctors which revealed high levels of stress and burnout.
Having made a full recovery from a traumatic brain injury, inflicted in a random attack in a Melbourne park in 2008, Dr Haikerwal also works with Brain Injury Australia. “I very much want to support others like me who have been afflicted. I am extraordinarily lucky to have got back to normal life, but most people don’t understand the need for advocacy, support and services,” he said.
The AC, signifying “eminent achievement and merit of the highest degree”, was awarded to just 16 citizens this year.
“It was completely unexpected, out of the blue,” Dr Haikerwal said, speaking during a break between consultations at his Altona North practice. The practice is a seven-doctor partnership, including his wife, Dr Karyn Alexander, and is designed to function as a true “medical home” offering patients team-based care, with 16 doctors and a range of allied health services on the site.
“Innovation and the new models of care that we are designing – these are things that keep me sharp and keep the passion burning,” Dr Haikerwal said.
“You can’t do tomorrow what you do today and hope to succeed. The future is about innovation and new ways of doing business.”
“It’s a joy that we’ve managed to do this, after living in the area for 25 years and this is our fifth site. Karyn and I have joined with other partners to realise a dream.”
The “other stuff” – as Dr Haikerwal refers to his national and international advocacy work – he sees as an extension of his practice.
“The mechanics of it are that I have a very forebearing wife and great colleagues in the practice. And every single day I’ve done the other stuff, I’ve still been doing general practice.”