Singing from the same song sheet: where medicine and music intersect

Morgan Liotta

28/09/2021 2:19:12 PM

Honing their skills in the language of music and medicine has helped two GP brothers master the work−life balancing act.

Dr Nathan Lam and Dr David Lam
Brothers Dr Nathan Lam (left) and Dr David Lam are passionate about serving their rural community.

The Lam brothers are often asked how they have time for careers in both medicine and music.
The answer applies to both areas: being able to read people and attend to their needs.
‘Playing music requires just as much dexterity, discipline and determination as learning any other medical procedure,’ Dr David Lam told newsGP.
‘Music is also all about “reading people”, that is, paying close attention to the crowd, their body language. The best DJs will read the crowd’s response … the worst DJs are aloof, completely ignore the crowd and play whatever they had decided they were going to play even before they took the stage.
‘Similarly, the best doctors are empathetic towards and inclusive of their patients, while the worst ones disregard the patient in the decision-making process.’
David is a rural GP in Streaky Bay on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula, a senior lecturer at the University of Adelaide and the 2019 RACGP GP of the Year. He is also a professional guitarist and DJ.
His brother, Dr Nathan Lam, is evidently cut from the same cloth.
Having just been announced as the RACGP South Australia GP in Training of the Year, Nathan is also a GP in Streaky Bay, the co-coordinator of the sixth-year Transition to Internship program at Adelaide Medical School, and a professional musician and music producer.
‘I think music makes me a better doctor and vice-versa,’ Nathan told newsGP.
‘I try to bring creativity into general practice, and the human stories from my medical work often inspire my music.’
Nathan first knew he wanted to be a GP after taking leave from hospital training for a backpacking trip in Tasmania’s wilderness.
‘I had a moment of clarity and decided that I wanted to do general practice instead [of being a non-GP specialist],’ he said.
‘Although I enjoyed hospital work to an extent, I felt like that kind of medicine was becoming all-consuming in my life.’
Nathan was inspired by his time learning with GPs during medical school, both locally in rural South Australia as well as overseas at Kudjip Nazarene Hospital in Papua New Guinea, and credits them as ‘important role models’ in giving him the confidence to pursue general practice.

Lam-brothers-article1-1.jpgDr Nathan Lam in Kudjip Nazarene Hospital, Papua New Guinea.
For David, rural general practice was always on the cards, having been inspired by their grandfather, a rural GP in Queensland and the Northern Territory, a Royal Flying Doctor in New South Wales and the Regional Medical Director of the Australian High Commission in South-East Asia during the Vietnam War.
‘I’m a rural GP because I want to make sure that all young people in Australia have the same opportunity to grow up safe and healthy, no matter their gender, beliefs or how far away they live from major cities,’ David said.
‘If I can make one tenth of the difference that [our grandfather] made in my own career I will be content.
‘I love the variety of general practice. Some days I am leading a team delivering emergency healthcare in Streaky Bay Hospital 700 km west of Adelaide. Other days, I am the mental health doctor at Headspace in Port Augusta 350 km away … [or] in Adelaide teaching at the university … [or] as the doctor for the South Australian Boxing Championships.’
With their busy schedules, keeping a healthy work−life balance is paramount for the brothers, who choose to focus on the overlap of their skills as GPs and musicians through dedication and collaboration with one another.
‘At the end of the day, no matter how good you are at something, you can’t physically be in two places at once,’ David said.
‘So, it is important to acknowledge that our music careers only exist in tandem with our medical careers as a result of teamwork.
‘[For example,] our DJ crew consists of myself, Nathan and our sister, Esther, who is also a general practice registrar. We essentially take both jobs in shifts. If I am playing a music festival, I make sure that the other two are covering the hospital. If Nathan needs protected time to finish off an album, I make sure that his patients are looked after.’
With several album releases and airplay on national and local radio, Nathan finds the variety his role in general practice offers runs parallel with his music career.
‘What I like most about general practice is the choice it affords,’ he said.
‘You can pursue whatever special interests you have and do it in your own way. You can work at your own pace, whilst carving out time for your other passions in life.’
For Nathan, this includes a combination of clinical and academic work, as well as allocating ‘enough time’ for family, his music career and hobbies like camping and beekeeping.
Reflecting on winning their individual RACGP awards in recognition of their contribution to general practice, both brothers express humbleness.
‘When I won the award for my work setting up the COVID clinic at the local church, I was honestly quite shocked,’ Nathan recalled.
‘I see myself as a pretty ordinary person and I am continually amazed and impressed by the newsworthy work that GPs are doing across Australia.
‘So to me, receiving the award felt like validation that an ordinary person like me can make a difference – and it all starts with having the creativity to come up with a new idea.’
When then-RACGP President Dr Harry Nespolon called David to notify him of his 2019 award, he thought he was in trouble.
‘Why would the President want to talk to some young doctor from a small town in regional SA? I thought I hadn’t paid my fees or something similar,’ he said.
‘As National GP of the Year I am proud to promote awareness of the challenges and resilience of my regional community of Eyre Peninsula, and other regional communities just like us all around Australia.
‘I want to inspire the next generation of health professionals to make a difference.’

Lam-brothers-article2.jpgProfessional musicians Dr Nathan Lam (left) and Dr David Lam.
So, what does the future hold for Dr Nathan and David Lam? Both are hopeful the challenges of the pandemic will mostly be behind them, and the music industry will be one of many to reopen.
‘Having toured most of Australia with our music by the beginning of 2019, we had planned to tour overseas. Sadly, the pandemic has made this impossible for now,’ David said.
‘Hopefully, in the near future, the population will be vaccinated and we can bring live music back to people both domestically and internationally.’
From a clinical perspective, David was recently awarded one of 10 national grants to undertake general practice anaesthetics training.
‘As a solo GP looking after a town 700 km away from the nearest intensive care unit, this will be a life-saving skill and, just like learning a new instrument, a lot of fun,’ he said.
Having found the COVID-19 pandemic ‘extremely challenging’ for his career as both a GP and musician, Nathan is hoping 2022 will bring further liberties.
‘[I want to] get on a plane to go exploring again, get amongst a sweaty mosh-pit at live gigs,’ he said.
‘I am immensely grateful for all the people who have supported me during what had been one of the hardest times of my life. I couldn’t have done it without them.
‘One of the take-aways from the pandemic has been the importance of being there for one another with love, respect and kindness. We’re all in this together.’
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Genevieve Yates   29/09/2021 9:35:00 AM

What an inspirational account, showing that rural GP training and continuing a musical career are not mutually incompatible. I've no doubt that being GPs helps them be better musicians and that being musicians improves their medicine. Keep putting that creativity into medicine, and medicine into creativity, David, Nathan and Esther!

Dr Mark Robert Miller   29/09/2021 11:56:52 AM

A great story, art and medicine, medicine and art perfect companions. Its a pity that there isn't a CPD activity that rewards "contemplation of the work life balance" in these difficult times.