What’s so great about Occupational Medicine?
Updated: Jun 29
As an orthopaedic registrar, occupational medicine meant two things to me; questionnaires and hepatitis B blood tests. On starting work at a new hospital, these two delights were administered from the occupational health portakabin, a frigid and dew-sodden box in a corner of the hospital that was always, for some reason, near the bins.
For me, a career in occupational medicine seemed about as likely as being heavyweight champion of the world. I would trot off back to surgery from the porta-fridge after sacrificing tiny amounts of my time and blood, and wouldn’t give occupational medicine another thought.
No more. As I write this I’m on the train to start my new job as an occupational medicine registrar. It’s really exciting.
It’s also quite a big change. So, why would I switch?
I had never considered occupational medicine because I didn’t know anything about it. Saying occupational medicine is about hepatitis B and questionnaires is like saying surgery’s about signing clinic letters. Sure, it’s part of the job but it misses pretty much everything.
I switched because occupational medicine looks like an amazing specialty. When an oil spill contaminates a coastline, occupational health teams look after tens of thousands of workers to make sure they don’t get poisoned or go down with heatstroke. When a train driver is in the cab as someone jumps under their wheels, occupational health teams help them manage the psychological trauma and get back to work. When a shiny new Land Rover model is being designed, occupational health teams help ensure the workforce can put the thing together safely.
The work is multifaceted, and can have far-reaching impacts. When a company realises 80% of its workforce is clinically obese, occupational health teams put in strategies to help get employees fitter. This reduces their time off work, helping the company, and helps the patients be happier and healthier throughout their whole lives. They’ll work and live longer, and need fewer hip replacements. Diabetes rates go down. The NHS in that area has a bit more to spend because fewer people are sick. This helps people who have never even worked for the company. What you do can impact a lot of people.
I haven’t even scratched the surface. As a consultant you get a chance to choose how your working life pans out. It’s possible to have a portfolio-style career, doing some clinical sessions and some sessions of something else – teaching at a university, say, or doing some medico-legal work. You can work in the NHS or you can work for a company. Or, you can start your own business and set up as an independent occupational health provider. You can be all-clinical, work entirely outside clinical practice (eventually) or have a mix of the two. You can become an expert in aviation medicine, or dive medicine, or medical law, and that’s just the start. You can work in a clinic in the countryside or you can jet off round the world as a senior executive in a multinational company.
It’s even a good choice if you’re thinking strategically. Occupational Medicine needs more doctors, and the specialty is growing. About a third of consultants are nearing retirement. Anyone going into the specialty now will enter a very favourable job market when they finish training and start looking for consultant-level jobs.
The big thing, the big attraction, though, is far simpler. I’ve met dozens of consultants and trainees in the specialty, and all of them seem really happy with their career choice. I know this not just because they’ve told me, but because they’ve been so willing to let me shadow them, speak to them on the phone, put me in contact with other colleagues, and answer any questions I had. Such a widespread level of job satisfaction isn’t something I’ve seen in doctors for a long time.
Doctors thinking of a career change often think they don’t have any options. They also think they have to stay where they are. They’re wrong. If you’re a doctor thinking about a switch, have a look at the Faculty of Occupational Medicine website. Go to a specialty meeting. Speak to some occupational physicians. It could be the start of good move.