Prevention is better than a cure, according to Fiona Wood AM, and for more than three decades the renowned surgeon has been redefining clinical excellence.
One of Australia’s most innovative and respected surgeons, Dr Wood has dedicated much of her career to burns research.
On Thursday, she visited Launceston for the first time, presenting at the annual David Huish Memorial Lecture, presented by the Clifford Craig Foundation.
Dr Wood is best known for her pioneering work with skin culture and for her invention of spray-on skin for burns victims.
It was for this work that she was named Australian of the Year in 2005 – a recognition, she said, changed her life forever.
“It is a breathtaking opportunity really,” she said.
“To have a capacity to talk to the whole of Australia.
“It still lives in a bubble in my mind, because it is very different to everything else.
“It is unique internationally. My life changed in a way that I could have never predicted.”
Born in England, Dr Wood said she was drawn to plastic surgery early on in her career.
She completed her medical training after moving to Australia in 1987 and became the director of the Burns Service of Western Australia in 1991.
One of her earliest achievements was the development of a skin culture lab, which she co-founded with scientist Marie Stoner.
It was here they developed the revolutionary aerosol-delivered cell-clusters, or spray-on skin.
Describing herself as a “clinical coalface worker”, Dr Wood said her focus remained on research, but admitted the opportunity to speak publicly about her work had its benefits.
“Suddenly there was all of this attention on me and my work, and I started realising it was a great opportunity,” she said.
“That is what I have really learned over the past 15 or so years – opportunities shouldn’t be squandered.
“So to be able to meet people that are working in different fields, that can enhance what you do in your field of work, is really important.
“That is essentially what has allowed us to grow to a completely different level, with a new outlook. We have been able to bring this multifaceted research to life.”
Dr Wood has been at the forefront of burns care and crisis response for the past 15 years.
During the 2002 Bali bombings, she coordinated a major operation involving four operating theatres, 19 surgeons and 130 medical staff.
Her team worked to save the lives of 25 patients – some with burns to up to 92 per cent of their bodies.
And while her work has gone a long way to increase public awareness of burns medicine, Dr Wood said there was still much more to be done.
“I think certainly in burns care, we’ve worked and hopefully had an influence across the whole spectrum,” she said.
“From prevention to first aid, to pre-hospital care, to linking in with the high technology and then outcome measures and then actually feeding that all back.
“Our treatments need to be focused on the individual – that is key – and on the whole of the individual.
“That takes you into different areas and into education in the community, because prevention is better than a cure.”
With her success, Dr Wood said she had never taken her role for granted – or completely adjusted to her accolades.
Along with being named a Member of the Order of Australia in 2003 and Australian of the Year in 2005, she was also voted the most-trusted Australian in a Reader's Digest poll for six years running.
Dr Wood described the trusting relationship between a surgeon and a patient as “extraordinary”.
“As a surgeon, someone will give you consent and it is my duty, my job, but also my privilege to look after you while you are at your most vulnerable,” she said.
“For people to have that level of trust in another person, because of my education and training – you can never take that for granted.
“I still marvel at that and think about it. With everything comes a responsibility and the responsibility in that context is enormous.
“Trust is a really interesting word and I think without it, how can health function in the broadest sense.”
As for what motivates her, Dr Wood said she would always personally strive for and encourage clinical excellence among her peers.
“If I am doing my best today, how am I going to make tomorrow better,” she said.
“Well I have to learn something. That is part, for me, of the whole business.
“My responsibility is to continue to question, to continue to learn and continue to drive the body of knowledge.
“Not just in my head, but from all those around me, so we can actually provide the very best to our community.”