Beyond bullying: A Melbourne University medical student's personal account

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A medical student shares his personal story of bullying and institutional abuse at the hands of university medical staff.

THE SHEER NUMBER of horror stories that have emerged of Australian health care professionals having their careers and personal lives turned upside down by a sinister culture of personal and institutional attrition have reached a breaking point.

The situation is now so dire that the Senate is holding a second hearing to examine an unprecedented amount of complaints alleging institutional abuse of Australian healthcare workers.

The president of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS), Professor David Watters, was even forced to issue a public apology to all surgical trainees abused by senior colleagues.

It’s also been revealed that the abuse of healthcare workers starts early. It’s been alleged that a disproportional amount of medical students encounter an extraordinary amount of hazing that is completely irrelevant to their medical training to the point where one in four students contemplate suicide.

But what happens when the bullying is just not enough and a prestigious medical faculty sabotages the career of a medical student?

This is what happened to me. 

I was an international medical student who commenced studies in medicine at Melbourne University in 2005. Before this, I was a PhD student at Monash University. I have suffered from a mild speech impediment my whole life but that never stopped me from pursuing my life goals.

I advanced through the pre-clinical years and commenced clinical school in 2007. I began to be harassed by a senior authority and staff at the clinical school from the outset in regard to my speech impediment. This became a daily ritual. The odd thing was that I was only bullied and harassed by the clinical school staff — the clinical staff at the teaching hospital always treated me with the utmost respect. My rapport with patients and clinicians on the hospital wards was always good.

The almost daily harassment from the senior authority became routine. When I was halfway through the course, the senior authority decided to issue an ultimatum: either I cure the speech impediment completely or fail for unacceptable communication skills. The behaviour of this senior staff member was unrelenting. No one else seemed to have that kind of passionate animosity towards me.

Things finally got to a breaking point when I decided to take a year off to ponder my medical future. I came back to the clinical school after the sabbatical with the hope that things would improve but, to my dismay, the bullying only intensified.

This time around, it was made clear that I would not pass my exams due to my speech impediment and, if I insisted on staying in the course and sitting the clinical exams, I must petition for extra time on the oral examinations. This request was very perplexing to me as I never needed extra time before. As I did not want to rock the boat even further, I agreed to all the demands set forth by the senior authority. I noticed that the extra time that was forced upon me was not actually provided. I was not given an explanation when inquired about why I was forced to petition for the extra exam time, which I didn’t get.

I wasn't surprised when I was advised that I failed the entire year and must immediately repeat the year at a cost of $100,000. Not only did I have to raise the extra money, I also had to raise it in about 15 days or face “another year off”, which was tantamount to expulsion from the course. I knew something was not quite right about the exams so I approached the medical school faculty to have my results explained. I was told to cease my enquiries and immediately commence the repeat year and, most importantly, pay the “repeat” fees.

One particular oral exam made me extraordinarily concerned about the exam integrity. I had to perform a venipuncture exam on a mock patient. All venipuncture procedures as taught by Melbourne University and in most major hospitals are exclusively conducted with vacutainer tubes. These tubes were clearly not provided during the exam. The medical faculty begrudgingly agreed to a meeting with me to try to address my concerns about the exams.

I met with one of the Melbourne Medical School directors who assured me that the vacutainer tubes were “always an issue” and that I had actually “passed” that particular exam station. At this point, I knew that I was being lied to. I requested a copy of all the oral exams that I supposedly failed via a lawyer. When I obtained the actual exam sheets, what I found was shocking. Not only did I not pass the vacutainer station as I had previously been advised but the examiner also noted that I was not “familiar with vacutainer tubes”.

During the clinical semester, I practiced the venipuncture technique dozens of times, all with vacutainer tubes (as prescribed by medical school curriculum). For the examiner to assert that I was not familiar with vacutainer tubes was clearly preposterous. Other exam anomalies were even more shocking. One exam marker gave me full marks for obtaining correct clinical exam results but no marks for actually conducting the exam, which led to the correct results, thereby failing me for that station.

Another exam station did not provide a crucial biopsy picture, which resulted in another fail. The examiner brazenly wrote on the exam sheet, 'No picture provided', even though the marking sheet clearly called for the picture. These anomalies just kept on coming with several instances of the examiners noting my correct responses on the marking sheet but crediting me with no marks, thereby failing me.

When I sent all this evidence to the medical school dean and the Melbourne University Chancellor, I thought I would get a fair review of my grievances. What I got instead was an official letter threatening me with a two-year incarceration term and a $20,000 fine if I ever made this evidence public.

At this point, I had no choice but to leave Australia as I ran out of money. During the subsequent years, I became bankrupt as I could not pay off my student loans — and my professional and financial situation have gotten progressively worse. 

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