Issue 2 • 2022
© 2022 The Royal Australasian College of Physicians
Are we there yet?’ – a witness seminar for the Australian and New Zealand Society of Occupational Medicine
Occupational and environmental medicine has evolved to become a distinctive practice involving a highly specialised team of professionals. But ‘Are we there yet?’ A recent witness seminar pondered this question and examined the developments in workplace health over the past 50 years.
Catherine Storey OAM MB BS MSc FRACP Chair Library Collections and Cultural Heritage Committee

As practising physicians, we are all witnesses to the history of medicine. Many of our current theories, practices, and beliefs will be ‘history’ within a surprisingly short time. Think Phrenology; a month’s bed rest for a myocardial infarct; a certain death for a child with leukaemia; or a patient’s health experience before Medicare.
Medicine is constantly evolving. When historians of the future look back to research our past and our present, what resources will be available? Often only sanitised narrated versions of events. Single oral histories are often accounts seen through ‘rose-coloured glasses’.
A more recent and popular method of recording events has been through witness seminars. A witness seminar involves a collection of individuals who have been ‘witness’ to a particular event or period of evolution in medical practice. By recording the exchange of these recollections from different perspectives, a historical record of the seminar offers the future historian a credible account of history as it happened.
On 20 March 2022, as a pre-workshop for the Australian and New Zealand Society of Occupational Medicine (ANZSOM) Annual Scientific Meeting, a witness seminar explored the rise of Occupational Medicine as a multi-disciplinary specialty over the past 50 years. The audience was asked to consider the question: ‘Are we there yet?’
Held as a hybrid meeting, over 30 occupational nurses and physicians were present in person, together with eight panellists, and around 40 others participated online. After briefly introducing a basic timeline of significant events, the witnesses gave personal accounts of the actual historical process. Dr Peter Clark, who had spent a large part of his professional life in the oil industry, reminded us of the early days leading up to the formation of ANZSOM and the Australian College of Occupational Medicine (ACOM). Dr Chris Walls followed with a comparison of the New Zealand experience. Professor Peter Brooks, who was Secretary of the RACP at the time of the ACOM and RACP merger, shed light on this critical collaboration and the formation of the Faculty (AFOEM).
We heard from Amanda Stock, who provided insights into the economic events of the 90s, which led to the outsourcing of company occupational health services. While Sandra Cole reminded us of the value of a multi-disciplinary approach which led to the inclusion of occupational health nurses in ANZSOM.
In the final session, the panel addressed the current state of the specialty and the future. Dr Farhan Shahzad, an occupational medicine physician who trained overseas, was able to contrast experiences. Who better to examine the question and look to the future than OM trainees – Dr Thea Leman, who previously trained in nuclear medicine and is now training in the mining industry in WA and Honor Major, who sees the future in digital health, provided their unique insights. And so for occupational physicians the answer to the question: ‘Are we there yet?’ is possibly - not yet.
At the end of the day, all participants agreed that it had been a successful session. The seminar provided an opportunity to reflect on how the specialty evolved, the defining moments of change, and the direction in which it is proceeding. It provides an excellent resource for future historians who want to know the realities behind the documented outcomes.
The History of Occupational Medicine Committee (Niki Ellis, Farhan Shahzad, Maggie Goldie, Barry Gilbert and Phillipa Harvey-Sutton) are actively recording the history of their specialty and seeking out archival material that may be languishing in old filing cabinets and boxes long forgotten. If you have any such treasures, please email: library@racp.edu.au.
You might like to consider a witness seminar to explore a facet of the history of your specialty?