Leading through a crisis

Avant media

Monday, 22 June 2020

Dr Brendan Murphy

Interview with Australia’s former Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy

Rarely is a doctor in a position where their advice and leadership impacts the lives of millions, yet Professor Brendan Murphy found himself in that position. As the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for the Commonwealth Government, his advice affected the lives of all Australians during a period when science and facts were emerging and changing rapidly.

In an in-depth interview, Avant’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Penny Browne, sat down with Professor Murphy in his last few weeks as CMO, to talk about his extraordinary journey of leading a team of medical experts responding to the pandemic and the remarkable collaboration.


“One of the really positive things about this pandemic is the collective consensus.”

The interview provides behind-the-scenes insights into his world of medicine and politics, during a once in a century crisis.

Finding the best course

Medicine is guided by scientific evidence. As Professor Murphy remarks on the COVID-19 pandemic, “it does not have a rule book. Every country is finding its way”.

"At the start of this pandemic, we were relying on media reports. There wasn’t much scientific evidence at all,” he says.

“When our case numbers were rapidly increasing, I was being bombarded every day by experts and would-be experts. Some were saying shut down quicker, and some were saying don’t shut down. It was tricky.”

Leadership that gained consensus

Professor Murphy and the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee made tough decisions, based on a body of collective evidence. Decisions he credits to the strength of his team and their shared knowledge.

“The most important thing is to leave your ego at home and open your mind to the ideas around you. Recognise nobody is a full-blown expert,” he advises, stressing the importance of “getting a really good team around you and trusting them.” He believes his ability to bring people together, get a consensus view and draw out the wisdom from his team, comes from his leadership of a hospital clinical unit. He also noted it helped him to remain calm and not react to information before it’s been checked.

As Australia’s top medical leader, Professor Murphy had to take the lead to sell unattractive messages to both federal and state governments. Leadership that brought all sides of politics together to ensure the safety of all Australians.

He says, “that Saturday morning, I called Minister Hunt and the Prime Minister and said we need to close the borders to China. That was very hard – it was not international dogma.”

“Later border closures and quarantine were done against a lot of international opposition. I'm proud I played a lead role in taking those restriction measures.”

However, being on call for six months and managing the constant stress was hard he admits, “but it got better; I had a wonderful team of deputy CMOs.”

The way forward for medicine

It’s been an interesting time for medicine, Professor Murphy ruminates. Doctors have needed to adapt, and the way they practise has changed significantly because of COVID-19.

“One key practical change is the integration of telemedicine. It will remain in one form or another. Video consultations are here to stay, and electronic prescriptions are now in place”, he says.

Professor Murphy starts as Secretary of the Health Department from mid-July and, although he no longer practises, he is focused on reforming clinical medicine for a stronger health system.

“The sustainability of our health system is a real issue…Making sure that we continue to do the MBS Review, PBS reform and mental health” are priority areas.

Kick-starting the Primary Care Reform agenda is also something Professor Murphy and Minister Hunt are aiming to do. He says, “we need to properly support primary care and make sure it’s an attractive specialty for our medical graduates.”

Once a doctor, always a doctor

Professor Murphy attributes his empathy to his clinical days; a time he says he misses. “The most rewarding thing in medicine for me is patient contact. Seeing someone recover from a condition. The joy of a dialysis patient with a successful transplant and having their life restored. I miss that a lot.”

He also speaks of the time he spent with students. “I do miss teaching and training too. I love teaching medical students and physician trainees.”

A lesson he is keen to share is for medical practitioners to be honest with themselves about what they do and don’t know, and the importance of seeking advice.

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