From Melbourne to Mongolia: A doctor’s travels

Phil Popham

Dr Phil Popham (Medicine, 1982) emigrated to Australia in 2001, where he is currently a Consultant in Anaesthesia at the Royal Women’s Hospital, Melbourne. For a number of years, Dr Popham has been sharing his medical skills even further afield. Working alongside a group of obstetricians, gynaecologists and anaesthetists from a range of hospitals in Melbourne, he has made regular trips to the First Maternity Hospital in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

‘Our initial aim was to teach clinical skills for gynaecological laparoscopies (keyhole surgery), which had been requested by the local team.’

Over the years, the anaesthetic team have found that the training they provide has progressed from practical teaching in theatre to workshops on estimating blood loss, epidural techniques, emergency airway management, peri-operative pain relief and basic life support. But no two days are the same.

‘Our Mongolian colleagues often surprise us with their requests. Perhaps the most notable example was to be asked to perform gynaecological laparoscopy on anaesthetised pigs. And, yes, you can look up the anaesthetic side of it on YouTube, as we had to.’

Just as surgical techniques evolve, so do other approaches, and the Melbourne team have worked hard to show their Mongolian colleagues the benefits of more collaborative methods.

‘Medical hierarchy in Mongolia can limit nursing input to medical teaching. A pivotal changing point came when theatre and perioperative nurses formed part of the Australian group. Once we emphasised how we use a team approach to medical care, teaching opportunities suddenly increased due to the willingness of the local healthcare team to embrace change.’

Friendship medal

In recognition of their work in Mongolia, Dr Popham and his colleagues have been bestowed with various honours and, in 2018, four of them (gynaecologists Kym Jansen, Emma Readman, Sam Hargreaves, and Dr Popham himself) were awarded the Nairamdal (Friendship) Medal by the President of Mongolia, Battulga Khaltmaa. It is the highest honour bestowed upon a foreign citizen by the Mongolian Government, and it comes in recognition of the medical advances in surgical care that their teaching has enabled.

Such awards are wonderful to receive, but for Dr Popham it comes alongside other valuable gifts.

‘It is perhaps a trite comment that teaching in Mongolia is a humbling yet exciting experience, and that we learn more from them than they from us. It is, however, also true.’