The end of an era
After 15 years at the helm of James Cook University medical education and research in Cairns, Professor of Medicine John McBride has called it a day.
From heading up the Cairns Clinical School, to ground-breaking infectious disease research and pandemic planning, Professor McBride has made his mark on medicine in the tropical north.
Professor McBride joined JCU in 2005, as the medicine program expanded to Cairns and Mackay. He’d spent the previous eight years as the one and only Infectious Disease Physician and Microbiologist at the Cairns Hospital. He said he joined the University to pursue his passion for research and education.
“It was a pretty seamless transition from Queensland Health to JCU,” he said. “I just moved from one office in the Cairns Hospital, to another office. But my role was different. That move coincided with the first cohort of fifth and sixth-year medicine students coming up to Cairns. The fifth-years included people like Dr Aileen Traves, who is now a Senior Lecturer in General Practice and Rural Medicine at JCU.”
During his time as Head of the Clinical School, Professor McBride rode the wave of progress. The Cairns cohort expanded rapidly from just 15 students to more than 60. While a challenging time, he said one of his biggest highlights was seeing students return as practising specialists.
“When you see some of those former students graduate, go away and work and then eventually return to the public or private hospital system in Cairns, it’s quite humbling,” he said.
“It’s great to see the gradual replacement of doctors and specialists who had come from outside of the region. Now there's a growing percentage of our medical workforce populated by JCU graduates.”
- Professor John McBride
No stranger to pandemics, Professor McBride has worked through SARS, the H1N1 Flu and now COVID-19. He said SARS had a big impact on infection control practices.
“I was working with Queensland Health at the time. Everything changed with SARS. A whole bunch of infection control practices became much more important, much better recognised during and after the outbreak,” he said.
“Then the pandemic H1N1 flu came along. By that time I was working with JCU, so I wasn't as intimately involved. The bulk of the heavy lifting was to happen within Queensland Health. But certainly, we needed to be across it in JCU.”
Professor McBride said the learnings and planning from the first two pandemics were a useful tool in steering JCU through COVID-19.
“I said to Professor Ian Wright, the current Head of the Cairns Clinical School, that this was a ‘Plan-demic’,” he said. “It’s involved multiple meetings and planning and so on, so it sort of feels appropriate to rename it.”
Professor McBride spent 2020 gearing up for the possibility of launching final-year JCU Medicine students into the hospital workforce, ahead of graduation, to help the system cope with an influx of pandemic patients.
“We were planning how final-year students might be employed by Queensland Health, for the surge of activity, which happily didn't eventuate,” he said.
“We needed to plan for how the system was going to cope with the enormous number of patients in intensive care. I mean, if we were in the United States or the United Kingdom, the plan might well have been enacted. And now medical students might well have been working on the front lines, as student interns.
“We're currently looking with horror at what's happening in the UK and in the US and thank goodness that our students were not in the end required. But the students were excited and we were excited about the possibility of our final-year students being able to contribute and make a difference in the COVID outbreak.”
Ready for retirement (sort of)
Professor McBride was a victim of ‘COVID-19 delay’ along with the rest of the world. 2020 was going to be his year to retire, but he decided to stay on board to help the University navigate the complex terrain of the pandemic.
“Some people leave employment because they've got another job to go to. I was leaving at a time of my choosing. But at the time there was a need, so I just shelved all of the plans that I'd had. A lot of the plans, mind you, would not have been possible anyway with COVID,” he said.
Having bid the Medicine class of 2020 farewell, in a very personal graduation-style ceremony last December, Professor McBride has now turned his attention to what his future will hold.
“I am still clinically active and although in the hospital they appointed another infectious disease position when I moved over the JCU, there's now five of them. But none of them do any work in private. So I will cover the private hospital for any infectious diseases advice and consultations. I still see patients in my rooms. So it's not a complete wind back.”
Professor McBride will stay on at JCU as an Adjunct Professor and continue his hospital volunteer work.
“I'll continue to take an interest in the medical school and help out when needed and give the occasional lecture and come to journal clubs and grand rounds and keep mentally active,” he said.
“I'm on the board for the Far North Queensland Hospital Foundation. There's a couple of medical people on the board who I help with research applications. It’s volunteer work that's quite a satisfying.”
A passion project he has in the works with the Foundation is helping Cairns achieve University Hospital status.
“That benefits both Queensland Health, the hospital and also JCU. It's a high level master plan to progress services, teaching and research at the hospital,” he said.
“They are things I'm passionate about. I'm helping where I can on the board, to realise a dream of our hospital here in Cairns becoming a University Hospital and raising the profile of research and teaching. It’ll keep me relatively busy, but I will still have a bit more free time.”