“Outstanding Clinician” Associate Professor William Connell inspires at GESA AGW

GESA’s 2022 Outstanding Clinician Award winner had inspiring words for Australian Gastroenterology Week (AGW) attendees, outlining the importance of collaboration, support and diverse experience in advancing the field.

The plenary session, held at the International Convention Centre, Sydney, on 10 September and attended by the limbic, saw Associate Professor William Connell recognised for his “outstanding contribution” as a mentor and years-long clinical excellence.

Despite GESA and mentee assertions the award was well-deserved, the Australian gastroenterology giant humbly accepted it with a speech on the “Strength and power of togetherness — how teams can make a difference in healthcare”, and expressed some hesitancy about his worthiness of the honour.

“When I was first notified of this award, I had mixed feelings. On one hand, I was chuffed that someone would care to nominate me. But on the other one, I was stunned and baffled that this action would eventuate. Because, in my heart of hearts I do feel it’s not justified,” Associate Professor Connell told the conference.

“I don’t say that out of any sense of false modesty. It’s a statement of fact. I’ve never done anything particularly exceptional or accomplished in my life, and there are far more credentialed women and men in the Society who should be here instead of me.”

He lamented he was “embarrassed” to be included with such an “illustrious group” of recipients and concerned about being another man to get an award previously given to only one woman.

He made peace with the award by making it less about what he may or may not have achieved, and more about the influence he’s had on others who have made substantial contributions to gastroenterology and the “strength and power that’s generated by individuals who work together to produce significant things”.

For 24 years, Associate Professor Connell has headed the inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) team at St Vincent’s Hospital, and 15 years, he’s been affiliated with the Australian Inflammatory Bowel Disease Association (AIBDA) GESA faculty.

Collective efforts in both groups have “yielded some very significant contributions that I’m proud of, to be a part of and credit must go to them for this award, because without them, I wouldn’t be here”, he said.

Such contributions include the AIBDA (or its forerunner’s) role in getting infliximab PBS-listed in 2008, followed by adalimumab, and MRI MBS-listed for Crohn’s disease, as well as the development of an IBD clinic at St Vincent’s with Professor Greg Whelan, Dr Ross Elliott and three colorectal surgeons which has scaled and diversified over the last 30 years.

The IBD landscape he’s helped cultivate looks very different from the sallow ground of the 1980s, when he began his career scoping monkeys.

“I’d been appointed gastroenterology registrar at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in Perth — the city where Helicobacter pylori had been famously described three or four years earlier,” he recalled.

“By the end of my first week there, I had taught myself six gastroscopies. I’d done six of them unsupervised and they were all on monkeys.

“This microbiologist who collaborated with Barry Marshall was interested in knowing if Helicobacter resided in non-human species and he’d somehow been loaned these animals from a touring circus. And, he approached our unit for someone to obtain gastric biopsies and, being the junior member, I was assigned the task.

Happily, all the monkeys survived the ordeal, but strangely, I never was notified of the results of this seminal research,” he said.

His return to human gastroenterology was much better supported and he received some “outstanding training”, particularly in endoscopy and liver disease, he said, noting he rarely saw IBD “except [in] a couple of memorable patients whose harrowing stories were quite moving and [where he] felt quite helpless”.

Back then, the only medical options were prednisolone, sulphasalazine, predsol enemas, metronidazole and “perhaps an elemental diet”, and most patients with moderate-to-severe diseases needed surgery, “often on multiple occasions”, he said.

He’d been told IBD clinicians were “no more than cheerleaders — they help and support people through times of difficulty [and] hold their hands when surgery becomes inevitable”.

Fortunately, Associate Professor Connell did a stint at St Marks, London where he worked with Professor John Lennard Jones and Dr Jean Ritchie to determine the safety of azathioprine and efficacy and cost-effectiveness of colonoscopy surveillance in patients with chronic and active disease, at a time when the now-standard practice “was being questioned”.

By the time he got back to Melbourne, cyclosporin had become available, forcing “clinicians to discard their cheerleading costumes and put on some grown up pants and go out and look after seriously ill patients with a powerful drug”.

Now, clinicians were getting more IBD referrals, and Associate Professor Connell was seeing the “immense psychological impact” the disease was having on some patients, “including five who sadly took their own lives” — leading him to collaborate with psychiatrists, which became regular staff participants in the weekly clinic.

While there were many IBD clinicians involved in these developments, including “a number of young, vibrant IBD physicians” at St Vincent’s, Associate Professor Connell’s mentee Dr John Ding tweeted the Outstanding Clinician Award winner was “a giant in the field of gastro in Australia” and had been “instrumental” in many gastroenterologists’ careers, including his own.

He told the limbic Associate Professor Connell has inspired him to help others.

The Young GESA cofounder said mentorship is crucial for trainees, as they try to navigate where and how to set up their practice, career progression, managing a work-life balance, improving their clinical practice and other associated challenges.

Like Associate Professor Connell, Dr Ding recognised young physicians have “a unique viewpoint and voice”, which he hopes will be represented to GESA through Young GESA and help further shape clinical practice.

And, also like Associate Professor Connell, he recognises the importance of collaboration and harnessing different skill sets.

“We’re all diverse and I think we all have different skill sets. The main thing is to hold on to that and use your skills to the best efficiency and productivity”.

Importantly, “no one needs to replicate any other person’s career” — “everyone walks a different path”, he said.

GESA announced Associate Professor Connell’s award earlier this year, saying he was “nominated for this highly-regarded Board Award due to the exceptional calibre of care provided to patients suffering from [IBD] combined with his mentorship of fellow clinicians. GESA acknowledges the outstanding contribution he has made to the field of gastroenterology.”

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