Champions for Children: Meet Karen McLean

Meet Karen McLean, Paediatrician and Vulnerable Child Health Lead and our latest Champion for Children. It’s National Child Protection Week so we chatted to Karen about her role at The Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) and what this week means for her.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and why you wanted to pursue a career at the RCH?
I’m from a family of teachers, so it probably isn’t surprising that once I was old enough I was volunteering in a range of kid’s programs – Nippers, summer programs and various camps. I love the honesty and fun that comes with working with children and young people. My first opportunity at the RCH was back in the summer of 1994/95, as a student doing some research with Professor Hutson, a friendly and generous surgeon who welcomed and mentored us, despite our very limited knowledge. I came back the following year to spend the summer with the metabolic and genetics team, and then had to wait until I had finished my intern year and I could get to work at the RCH and train as a paediatrician. I started in February 2001 and have not left. I’ve been in my current department since 2008 having spent a training year there in 2005.

What is your role now, what does an average day look like, and what do you enjoy most about it?
I’m now the Vulnerable Child Health lead for the Centre for Community Child Health as a paediatric clinician and researcher. My focus is healthcare for children in out-of-home care, and I love that I get to do this work through clinical, research and policy related work. It’s never boring, and I get to meet people from lots of different organisations too. On my clinical days, I would see patients aged up to mid-teens who for various reasons are living in foster or kinship care. I work with them and their carers to identify, understand and manage their health needs (physical, mental and developmental needs). On a non-clinical day, I might be working on some research that explores issues around health problems, or presenting about the issues to some stakeholders, or teaching and supervising more junior clinicians and researchers in their work in this space.

This year’s National Child Protection Week theme is ‘Every child in every community needs a fair go”, what does this mean to you?
The science supports what people living with significant adversities have probably well understood for years – that a whole range of difficulties at an individual, family and society level often make it a lot harder for some children to attain the same level of health and education outcomes as others whose lives are less complex. I think that the challenge sits with us as clinicians, healthcare organisations and policymakers to do all that we can to provide services in a way that is accessible, respectful, and effective for those who need it most.

What are some of the barriers that may stop a family staying engaged in their medical care and what can we do as a community to improve this?
There are many things that can get in the way. Health services are often not very flexible in when they can offer appointments to families. Some of the ways we deliver services are disconnected within our system, and it can be hard for a family to maintain good ongoing relationships with clinicians in teaching hospitals with lots of staff changes as we train the future workforce. As individuals, building connection and ensuring that we use the clearest communication possible with families and with the others involved in their care will go a long way. Working with community-based partners is essential so that families can get care as close to their home as possible.

Are there any valuable lessons you have learnt from the children and young people in your care?
That we need to be listening to them! When children or young people are attending services without a parent or caregiver that has known them their whole lives, it is actually often the child that knows the most about their health history. Parents attending appointments with their children often give the history and speak for the child – it might be faster to do it that way, they might be more confident at speaking to the doctor, the child might feel shy or embarrassed or not want to be there. When I’ve seen children with a carer that knows them less well, it has been amazing how much information a child can give. And of course, they are the best placed to tell us what they most want our help or support with.

Who is your biggest inspiration?
I’m not one to be particularly inspired by someone I haven’t met! Professionally I have found A/Professor Jill Sewell’s quiet but effective leadership, alongside her perpetual curiosity about the things that sit alongside clinical practice, to be very inspirational – and she was the person that first invited me to work in my current field. Personally, I was blessed with parents who always encouraged me in all my endeavours, while modelling a servant-hearted approach to life – I’m very grateful for their example.

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