Q&A with Dr Carolyn Ee

29 October 2021

A Q&A with Dr Ee on her career, new challenges ahead and some of the topics her team will work on in 2022 and beyond. Dr Carolyn Ee is the Jacka Foundation Senior Research Fellow at NICM Health Research Institute, and has been with the Institute since 2016. She is also a Fellow of the RACGP who practises integrative medicine and a registered Chinese Medicine Practitioner and medical acupuncturist with a PhD in acupuncture from the University of Melbourne. Her role at NICM Health Research Institute involves leading an integrative medicine program that spans clinical services, research, education and translation with the objective of increasing the integration of well-evidenced complementary therapies into conventional healthcare. She also is building a research program around the role of complementary and integrative therapies in women’s health, metabolic health and cancer.

What drew you to complementary and integrative medicine research?

As a GP who practises acupuncture, I was curious about whether or not acupuncture actually worked or whether the improvements I was seeing in practice were due to other factors such as the natural tendency of symptoms to improve, expectations for improvement, or even the therapeutic relationship. This led me to conduct a randomised controlled pilot study as a Masters of Medicine by Research project, followed by a large randomised sham-controlled trial as a PhD project.

What do you love about research?

Being a researcher involves several crucial aspects that lead to what Mihaly Csikszentmihaly calls “flow”. Flow is a mental state where you feel like you are “in the zone” and you are fully immersed and engaged in what you are doing, with a profound sense of personal control over what you are doing. The aspects that can lead to flow are curiosity, autonomy, creativity, passion and purpose. Research contains all of these ingredients! I also love the fact that research requires teamwork. This was welcome to me after years of practising as a GP, where you work almost completely on your own.

What brought you to NICM HRI?

I joined NICM HRI because it is the peak integrative therapies research institute in Australia, particularly with its focus on clinical trials, and it offered me the opportunity to work with leading researchers in the field.

What are you currently working on?

I’m developing an intervention based on mindfulness meditation, yoga and diet and exercise recommendations that aims to help women manage their weight after breast cancer. This is important because after treatment for breast cancer, a significant proportion of women gain weight for a number of reasons and this increases the risk of the cancer returning. We hope that our intervention can help them reach the healthiest weight they can get to as well as improve their wellbeing.

What is your next project?

Our academic integrative health centre, Next Practice Care of Western Sydney Integrative Health, will open in early 2022 at Westmead. This will be an exciting project as we are embarking on developing a patient registry from routinely collected data from the clinic, capturing patient outcomes for a 10 year period. This data will tell us how integrative therapies perform in the real world, and is the first study of its kind in Australia.

I’m also developing a short course on integrative medicine practice for medical doctors, which will teach GPs and other medical doctors essential practice skills such as the medico-legal and ethical issues to consider with integrative medicine practice. We are developing this in response to a study we conducted with Australian GPs that showed there were significant gaps in training to be an integrative GP that need to be addressed.

What has been the most rewarding research project in your career so far?

In 2018 my team and I ran a highly successful randomised controlled pilot trial on shared medical appointments and mindfulness for type 2 diabetes in collaboration with Diabetes NSW and ACT. The participants in the intervention group provided overwhelmingly positive feedback about the program, and the effects on blood sugar control were very encouraging. We hope to use our pilot study findings to fund a fully powered randomised controlled trial in the near future.

What has been the best career advice you’ve ever received?

That I have to focus on my research program first before contributing to others’ because prioritising my work means I can have more impact and influence, achieve my goals and grow others’ careers in the process.

Do you think it’s harder being a woman in science?

Academia is a demanding career and although much of it can be done flexibly and from home, it often requires long hours, travel, and after-hours or weekend work. Women find it more difficult to balance these demands if they have a family as sadly the traditional expectation remains that a woman is the primary carer for children, despite it being 2021. I think we need to normalise the balance between personal and professional lives, regardless of gender or parental status.

How do you juggle your work responsibilities as a researcher and GP, with your family responsibilities?

I have always planned to have set times where I can focus on my work, and when I can focus on my family. I wake up early to make the most of quiet time in the morning – I am up at 5.30am, practise yoga at 6am, and am at the computer by 6.30am. This allows me to take a couple of short breaks during the day e.g. to help the kids get ready for school, or schedule in some exercise. I can then finish work around 4.30pm or 5pm, leaving the evening free. I don’t work on weekends, and find that I am a lot more productive on Mondays as I have had a proper rest from work.

As a regular commentator on the importance of wellbeing and life work balance, what are your top 3 tips for managing the daily grind and the sometimes overwhelming challenges of life.

  1. Plan a block of time in your day without any meetings. For me this is the first half of my work day (6:30am-10:30am). It’s well known that I rarely book meetings before 11am. I am the most productive first thing in the morning, and I am only able to advance my career if I can use this time to write papers rather than sit in a meeting.
  2. Get active and get outside. Lockdown and working from home has made us a sedentary nation. I’m trying to go out for frequent short walks, and if I can I will walk during meetings. Aiming to get 10,000 steps a day would be a start.
  3. Take proper breaks. We need to take breaks after a minimum of 90-minutes of concentration. We also need time away from our work at the end of the day to be fully recharged for the following day. Weekends are also another important part of our rest schedule, and also taking annual leave is crucial for our wellbeing.

With the mental toll of lockdown and isolation, and NSW lockdown restrictions easing and Sydney reopening up, as a practicing GP what are your words of wisdom for people wanting to celebrate and move freely again?

Enjoy being together again, but choose the safer options wherever possible. Because COVID-19 is spread through aerosols when we breathe, it’s important to have proper ventilation. This means outdoor activities are safest, or if we are indoors, open as many doors and windows as possible. I have a carbon dioxide monitor at home and it is incredible how poorly ventilated our homes are even with just one window open. You need two windows for enough airflow; a full door open is even better. But your best defence is obviously getting double vaccinated, and then getting your booster shot when you need to.

What is your favourite aspect of your role?  

I enjoy the variety of my work, and the fact that I can be (mostly) in charge of my schedule. I also really enjoy working with team members, as the camaraderie and peer support makes the process of research so much more enjoyable and worthwhile, as well as engaging with research participants and hearing their stories. It helps me to stay focussed on my vision of making a measurable impact on the lives of people living with chronic illness.