RACP Fellows in Focus: A/Prof Sanjaya Senanayake

Date published:
16 Aug 2021

Fellows in Focus A Prof Sanjaya Senanayake

To date the terms, ‘Coronavirus’ and ‘COVID-19’ have been searched countless numbers of times on search engines around the world, putting a number of the RACP’s Fellows under the most intense spotlight – being called upon to provide important, accurate information and steer millions of people around the globe in the right direction. It’s been a critical time for those working in epidemiology and infectious diseases to step up and ensure that the right information is being disseminated, so that false information is squashed before it has a chance to misinform. On the frontline of this has been Associate Professor Sanjaya Senanayake, “it’s important to be in a position to be able to give good information to people and to not get people to panic, but to maintain calm.”

Upon meeting with Sanjaya you can’t help but be impressed by his effortless calm and composure. Sanjaya, an infectious diseases specialist, has been a go-to face for media appearances during the pandemic. However, it’s not without its challenges, “COVID-19 has presented an enormous challenge for infectious diseases, physicians, epidemiologists etc. around the world,” he said.

“For us, we have had to try and understand this virus, understand how it's transmitted and make our hospitals safe and also convey to our non-infectious-disease colleagues, that it is a safe environment. People are scared. I mean, although we might see a lot of brave faces coming from the healthcare sector, I can tell you a lot of my healthcare colleagues, and even myself at various stages during COVID-19, have been scared. To manage that anxiety coming from colleagues, in a sort of evidence-based and calm manner and making sure that the hospital is safe for staff, patients, relatives alike, that has been a big challenge.”

When pressed about how he copes with the enormity of the challenges he currently faces, Sanjaya replied, “it's often just a mad rush. You just manage to do it. I want to make sure I'm conveying accurate information to the media.”

Sanjaya’s love of challenges started early and when considering his chosen career path, he gave himself ample opportunity to test the waters and drill into the area he was most confident would be interesting even 40 years down the line, “one thing I would say for young doctors who still haven't determined what they want to do, don't stress about it. You'll eventually work it out one way or the other.”

When it comes to the driving factors that help facilitate his work and navigate professional problems Sanjaya remarked, “I think experience, which comes by turning up to work every day, is so vital. I'm definitely a better infectious diseases physician today than I was when I first started. That just comes with time and seeing patients. I think another quality that's so important, particularly in infectious diseases, is having an open mind. For example, someone presents with a fever and they've got no other symptoms or signs that point to a particular area of the body that could be affected like the urine, like pneumonia in the lungs etc. What you have to do is you have to be thorough and open. You need to ask people about their personal lives, their relationships, the types of food they eat, their recreational activities. Do they like to garden a lot? Do they travel a lot overseas? An infection they could have picked up 20 years ago in Africa could be manifesting now. Having an open mind and being thorough is really important.”

At a ground level, Sanjaya is a supervisor for Advanced Trainees (ATs) and infectious diseases, and when students come to the hospital, Sanjaya is their supervisor. By the end of the year, it is up to him to make sure that they are up to the task that they're competent. However, it’s not just about having the practical skills, “emotional happiness in a very busy job is really important,” he said.

“Registrars who are trying to impress their bosses will often be very stoic and let things simmer until they explode at a later date. So, I find it really important to regularly meet with our ATs, make it known that they can be open with us anytime if they have any concerns. That is really important.”

Sanjaya’s enthusiasm for educating and communicating in an engaging manner has inadvertently resulted in a number of media interviews as a medical expert. Some of these included The Project, Channel Ten's Breakfast show, the Guardian newspaper and Channel 4 News in the UK. If that wasn’t enough, he has also written a novel – Chilli, Chicks and Heart Attacks: The Misadventures of an Intern – a tale of medicine, migrants and mayhem.

Infectious diseases may not be a natural career path for you and if you're not sure about what you want to do, “try and look at a sub-specialty that interests you and also look at the people within that sub-specialty and see if they have a similar personality to you” Sanjaya advised. “Look for people who are like you, and if they are like you and you like what they're doing, then that's something you should potentially do.”

Not someone that wants to blow his trumpet unnecessarily, when asked about what he was proud of and what his potential legacy in medicine might look like, Sanjaya tentatively replied, “In terms of the things I'm proud of, communication and teaching. I'm very passionate about teaching. The students of today will be the teachers of tomorrow. You can see with COVID-19 now there's so much misinformation. I think it's really important to be in a position to be able to give good information to people and to not get people to panic, but to maintain calm.

“In terms of legacy, I think what I'm happy about is that our College is doing so well in infectious diseases. I know that there are good junior physicians coming out through the ranks who have been well-trained and who will take over to do an extraordinary job, probably even better than me. So that's the legacy. Not-so-much a personal legacy, but it’s the legacy of the College training scheme that I'm really proud of.” 

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