Enjoy this in-depth interview with Dr Kudzai Kanhutu. Dr Kanhutu is an infectious diseases specialist and Deputy Chief Information Officer at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.
Have you always been interested in medicine and infectious diseases?
In Zimbabwe, where I grew up, women didn’t have a lot of career options at that time - you became a teacher or a nurse. Most of my family went down the medicine path…so I grew up in a household full of medical conversations.
Initially, I thought I’d be a paediatrician because I spent my summers with my aunty who was a paediatric nurse. I remember thinking this is so cool - you get to cut people open! Healthcare for me has been about wonder, and how things are changing all the time.
In school, I was very distractable, chatty, always busy. And there’s no better career for a chatty busybody than an infectious diseases clinician. There are no questions that are off-limits. I’ve found a pocket of medicine that fits my personality and has linkages that interest me.
So healthcare was always on the cards for me, and once you get into this field it’s so rich and full of opportunities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a game-changer in how we provide healthcare. How did you have such foresight, in your work with telehealth and refugees? And how important is it to have tailored approaches to healthcare provision for CALD and refugee groups?
It was less forward thinking and more looking at what was horribly wrong with today, with the deeply embedded structural inequalities that presented barriers for these families and finding a way to address those inequalities. Some families were travelling half a day for an appointment and staying overnight in a hotel room - this is wrong.
Everyone is diverse in their own way but there are some pockets of the community that are discouraged from engaging with and expressing their diversity, their individuality. There are some people that are asked to downplay their otherness where other people, particularly people who look different, are asked to play it up. But we’re all different, and we all come from somewhere.
I had a reasonably easy transition from Zimbabwe because Zimbabwe was colonised by the British - we spoke English. There wasn’t that cultural shock for me because it was part of how we grew up. I’m married to a Briton. Even the sense of humour here was familiar but when you’re working in healthcare, you’ve got people who’ve come from different places who feel profoundly unwanted, and we have a responsibility to respond to and engage with these people.
You have worked in our healthcare system at many levels, in many roles and with various institutes and employers. As a woman who grew up in Zimbabwe, what has been your experience of cultural inclusion and diversity in Australian healthcare?
Mixed. I speak for myself but I think I mirror the experience of many who look otherly. You often have to justify your existence; to confirm and reaffirm why you’ve got where you are, that yes, you really are a doctor, answer questions about where you studied…from colleagues and patients, when I visit age care facilities, when I check-in for work at the hospital…it comes from women of colour being disempowered…but for those of us walking in different spaces we’re still seen through this lens. This means you either get rapturous applause or distrust.
A friend of mine is Turkish but doesn’t look typically Turkish so she swings between the two, she can decide when she wants to be Turkish and when she doesn’t but most of us can’t do this.
It comes back to owning your own individuality and diversity, and allowing others to do the same, to self-identify.
Your involvement in and contributions to the healthcare sector are impressive – you’re a specialist clinician, information officer, research fellow. You’re also a mother. How do you manage all your professional roles and personal life? What keeps you grounded?
I have fun with a lot of the stuff I do. When you have had opportunities to spend time with people in Zimbabwe, you get perspective… like you’re this bit of dust drifting through infinity…just a small person who’s lucky to be alive.
And some things I say yes to and some things I say no to because I am busy. I’ve learnt it’s okay to say no which is not always easy. I was talking to a colleague about this and the hardest thing when you work in a purpose-driven field like healthcare is the more you do, the more you are urged and pushed to do more. This can be overwhelming. You have to manage yourself and be able to say no.
Having kids has made me a far better and more organised person than I would’ve been without them. They help me hone in on what matters, and to not let things get too heavy.
Reviewed 25 October 2021