My job: Chief Medical Officer, Air New Zealand

By Donna McIntyre

Name: Dr David Powell
Age: 45
Role: Chief Medical Officer, Air New Zealand
Salary: Comparable to senior medical positions within hospitals.
Working hours: Very extendable
Qualifications :MBChB, FRNZCGP (Fellow of the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners), FAFOEM (Fellow of the Royal Australasian Faculty of Occupational & Environmental Medicine), DAvMed (Diploma in Aviation Medicine).

Describe what you do

I provide medical advice to Air New Zealand in all areas. I lead a small team which ensures the pilots and flight attendants are medically fit; advises other staff and managers on work-related health issues; provides for the medical needs of passengers including on-board doctors' kits, defibrillators, emergency in-flight advice, and crew training. We also run the company's alcohol and other drugs programme which is about rehabilitation and treatment as well as some testing. We make sure there is good medical care for crews off-shore, and advise on issues that arise such as deep vein thrombosis, Sars or pandemic planning.

Why did you choose this line of work?

As a young doctor I spent my first intern pay cheque on flying lessons, and soon started looking for ways to combine aviation with medicine.

That led to the Air Force, to an air ambulance for a while, and then to Air New Zealand. The work is varied, no two days are the same and few days turn out the way you expect them to. The industry is dynamic and demanding, and anyone who has worked in it knows it "gets in your blood".

What skills or qualities do you need?

Well, first you need a medical degree, and then a passion for aviation; you need post-graduate qualifications in aviation medicine (offered by Otago University) and ultimately a specialist fellowship in occupational medicine. Being in a corporate environment is a bit different from what many doctors are used to, it brings you up close to commercial realities and the daily work lives of your patients. You need to be able to communicate with many different people, to multi-task, and to adapt to change.

Why is your job important?

Ask a pilot who's been helped to get flying again, a passenger needing to fly on a stretcher with oxygen, or an employee who's successfully rehabilitated back to work with an alcohol issue under control. Or ask the senior management team who worked with us through the Sars scare in 2003.

You are regarded as a world leader in studies into issues such as the effects of flight on sleep deprivation. What have been your main studies and what are you working on at present?

Years ago some of my colleagues established a system for using scientific methods to measure fatigue in aircrew and over the past decade this has become an important part of the way the company makes decisions on rostering and scheduling. It's run by a collaborative Crew Alertness Study Group which I lead, with management and pilot/flight attendant representatives as well as scientific and medical advisers. Many other countries are now recommending such a 'Fatigue Risk Management System' approach.

What are the main medical concerns for staff with Air New Zealand?

These days we see an increase in stress and psychological issues having an impact at work. Our industry seems to be one that attracts people who give their all, and it demands a high degree of resilience. There's an increasing focus in Air New Zealand on employee well-being.

Do you travel much? And what tips do you have to make flying easier on the body and more enjoyable?

I probably do two to three long haul trips each year for the job. During the journey, I just sleep when I can, but on arrival I try to switch to destination time as soon as possible and sometimes use melatonin for a few days. Being over 40, I wear compression stockings if I'm going to be sleeping in a seat. And, if possible, I avoid flying in the United States (because of security checks, delays, hubbing).

Most challenging part of the job?

Juggling involvement on many different fronts at once, and dealing with a huge range of staff and other people all over the world, in a 24/7 operation.
Most rewarding part of the job?

The alcohol and other drugs programme, in particular seeing people turn their lives around.

Where would you like to be in five years?
Doing more flying and playing more music.

Advice to someone wanting to do the same thing?

If you want to be in an unusual niche within medicine, and have a love affair with aviation, then by all means go for it. If you want a "cushy" number, don't!

- NZ Herald

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