RACP Fellows in Focus: Professor Kim Oates

Date published:
10 May 2021

Fellows in Focus Prof Kim Oates

A general paediatrician, Professor Kim Oates has had a 50-year career in clinical care as well as research interests in child development, child behaviour and child abuse. He is internationally recognised as a ‘child advocate’ due to his pioneering work in child protection.

When describing why he became a specialist Kim responded, “By accident!”

“My plan was to be a GP, so I went to the children's hospital at Camperdown to get six months of paediatric experience, but they would only give me a 12-month position. That year included a term with the professor of paediatrics who asked about my future plans. I answered that I was off to England, working my way as a ship’s doctor with no definite plans, but hoping someone there would offer me a job. He responded, “that's a bad plan. If you stay another year as my registrar, I'll get you a job at a teaching hospital in London”. It was tempting. My wife and I had a young baby, and she wasn't that thrilled travelling in the bows of a ship for six weeks. So, I stayed another year, this time as   professorial registrar, got the promised job at a London teaching hospital and things   took off from there, but it was really all by accident.”

Kim worked at St Mary’s Hospital in London, then went on an exchange to Boston Children's Hospital, which included a Harvard teaching appointment, “When I came back to Australia, I was the most junior staff specialist at the children's hospital. The senior physician said, “we're seeing some abused children. I don’t want to deal with these cases.  As the new boy on the block, you can look after them”. We set up a child protection unit, one of the first in Australia, and I decided to study it as well, which led to a lot of publications. When the position of Professor of Paediatrics came up, I applied and got it.”

In addition to advocacy for children, Kim has placed emphasis on identifying and encouraging future leaders in academic, clinical and administrative positions. One such example is the establishment of the Australian Academy for Emerging Leaders in Patient Safety, which specifically focuses on finding and nurturing future Australian health leaders.

When asked about the challenges of a highly prodigious career, Kim remarked, “One important challenge when I became Professor of Paediatrics in 1985, was the discord between the hospital and the university. My challenge was to harmoniously unite them. I did several symbolic things and also took on Chair of the Division of Medicine at the hospital, in addition to being a Professor of Paediatrics. We inserted the university into the day-to-day activities of the hospital, and although it wasn't that difficult, it was a challenge at the time. Another big challenge was developing a strong research culture, something my successors have continued brilliantly”.

After 12 years as Professor of Paediatrics and Child Health, Kim was made CEO of the Children’s Hospital (which by then had moved to Westmead), a position he held for seven years. He then developed a new career in teaching patient safety nationally and internationally.

Kim’s body of work is impressive. He’s published over 200 peer-reviewed papers, written and edited 15 books, written 62 chapters in other books, as well as contributing to numerous reports, reviews, editorials and opinion pieces. His advice for those at the start of their career in paediatrics, “seize opportunities when they come. Don't worry unnecessarily. Have a sense of humour. Don’t fall for flattery and don't let anybody ever put you on a pedestal. That's good advice for all specialists.”

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