2023 | Volume 24 | Issue 5

Professor Spencer Beasley

Professor Spencer Beasley has been giving his time to the Royal Australasian College (RACS) since 1989—first from Australia and then from 1996 in Aotearoa New Zealand. During this time he has held eight significant—largely pro bono—roles, making countless contributions to the College, and by extension, to the surgical profession in both countries. His current position, as one of two surgical advisors for RACS in Aotearoa New Zealand, comes to an end in November. We will be losing someone who has been influential across an array of RACS activities and an important asset to our organisation. But we can expect to continue benefiting from the numerous positive changes he has initiated in our College.

Professor Spencer Beasley is a busy man. He is a professor of Paediatric Surgery at the University of Otago in Christchurch. He is also clinical director of the Department of Paediatric Surgery at Christchurch Hospital and clinical lead in Wellington. He oversees children’s surgical services across the entire South Island as well as the lower North Island.

He is the current president of the Pacific Association of Pediatric Surgeons, and former president of the New Zealand Society of Paediatric Surgeons, and the Australia and New Zealand Association of Paediatric Surgeons. He has been editor of several journals, most recently of the Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health and has contributed to RACS Pacific Islands Program for many years, mostly in Vanuatu.

He is no less busy outside surgery. Spencer has nine children—some of whom are still at home—and seven grandchildren. He is the New Zealand advisor to Solar Space Technology and a school board chairman.

On top of all that, Spencer has spent the past 34 years willingly providing his advice and expertise to RACS. Why?

He says, “giving back” is in his DNA. He was brought up in a family where community service was valued and considered a particular responsibility of those with privilege or the ability to help. Spencer’s father, Wyn Beasley, was heavily involved with RACS too, spending many years sitting on Council and its committees, and who after retirement contributed regularly to Cutting Edge and authored the official history of the College, The Mantle of Surgery and another book, Portraits of the College.

Spencer’s first contact with RACS was as a medical student, as a projectionist at a College meeting in Queenstown. As a young surgeon, Spencer quickly increased his involvement, first attending a Surgical Educators’ course and a Younger Fellows meeting, before taking on the first of many roles as a member of a RACS committee.

He credits his family with making his work at RACS possible.

“My wonderful wife, Christy, has been such a massive support to me. I have only been able to do what I have because of my family’s understanding and tolerance, which has been given so generously. I recognise their sacrifice over these years.”

Spencer was vice president of RACS from 2016 to 2017; a time when the College was tackling allegations of bullying in the surgical profession. He helped consolidate the Building Respect, Improving Patient Outcomes initiative to improve the culture of surgery.

Yet, one of his proudest achievements was from his time as the Chair of the Board of Surgical Education and Training (2008–2010) when he got the disparate specialty training boards to work better together after a particularly difficult time in their relationship with the College. (He notes that while there remain points of tension, there is now a mutual recognition of the advantages of ongoing collaboration.)

As far as intellectual stimulation and being able to effect major change, Spencer says it was his time as chair of the Court of Examiners, from 2010 to 2013 that stands out.

“In a relatively short time, we markedly changed the Fellowship examination to improve its reliability and validity as a high-stakes assessment tool and to ensure it actually examined what it purported to. Proper training for all new examiners was commenced. Other changes introduced reduced inadvertent bias and the emphasis in the exam changed from assessing knowledge (which was now assumed) to assessment of the clinical application of that knowledge. We also developed marking points, consistent standards, started ’blue printing’ the scope of the exam, and simplified court meetings.”

Spencer credits Dr Richard Lander, Associate Professor Andrew Brooks, and RACS staffer Narelle Hardware with supporting these achievements.

Spencer’s contributions to RACS have not gone unappreciated. He was awarded the GJ Royal Memorial Medal in 1993 and in 2015, the Sir Alan Newton Surgical Education Medal for a distinguished and substantial contribution to surgical education. A year later, Spencer was honoured for his outstanding contributions to the art and science of surgery and surgical leadership in Aotearoa New Zealand with the Colin McRae Medal.

In his most recent role, as a member of staff in the surgical advisor position, Spencer says the highlight has been working with colleagues including Aotearoa New Zealand National Committee (AoNZNC) Chair, Associate Professor Andrew MacCormack, former RACS president Dr Sally Langley, and fellow surgical advisor, Dr Sarah Rennie. He says it is specifically their work together to get government to re-engage with the College after a long period of reluctance that stands out as a real achievement. The AoNZNC now has quarterly meetings with Te Whatu Ora – Health New Zealand, Manat ū Hauora – Ministry of Health, Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC), Medical Council of New Zealand (MCNZ) and is building closer connections with Te Aka Whai Ora – Māori Health Authority.

Spencer says advocacy is a critical function of the surgical advisor role in Aotearoa, especially since the health reforms and the introduction of Te Whatu Ora in July 2022.

“This component of our work will remain essential over the next few years.

“RACS definitely has more exposure and standing with government for matters surgical than a few years ago. We are becoming part of the solution.”/p>

He says he and Sarah have had a great working relationship for the two-and-a-half years since they took up their roles, which explains the long list of achievements they can credit themselves for.

“We work incredibly well together. Between us, we cover almost all bases and felt we were making a difference.”

They are in a unique position to overcome the perceived Fellowship and staff divide, and Spencer says they have worked hard to make themselves easily available to members providing guidance and advice and resolving potential complaints. Their advice is invaluable internally too and Spencer and Sarah have often daily contact with staff, the AoNZNC executive and Council members.

Spencer has regularly provided contributions to College magazines. His articles, providing information, insights and opinions on Aotearoa New Zealand surgical matters, are a stock feature of Cutting Edge and increasingly Surgical News.

It is perhaps his corporate memory however, that will be the biggest loss to RACS. He has a firm understanding of the organisation; its many functions and processes, committees and boards, its current structure and how it came to be.

“I started on the Board of Paediatric Surgery in 1998, had 16 years on what is now termed CSET [the Committee of Surgical Education and Training] and understand the FEX and assessments well. I see the same problems re-emerging and have an idea of what works and what does not.”

As he prepares to step away from the surgical advisor role, Spencer says he is grateful for all the advice and support given to him by Sarah, the Aotearoa New Zealand team and the AoNZNC. He also has some words for those Fellows who are not directly involved with RACS.

“We have a great team of committed people in our College. Please do not under-estimate how much they do for you as a Fellow to ensure that you can continue your clinical work with the fewest distractions and least interference. Their advocacy and policy work are critical for all of us, even though it is done unobtrusively in the background.&rdquo

And where to now for Spencer as he continues into the fifth decade of his surgical career?

“I have no shortage of plans, including winding down my clinical work over the next few years. Music and the outdoors feature prominently in my plans. I still have plenty of children at home and to spend more time with them and my wife, and the next generation, will make me happy.”