A few years ago, leading a group on a mountaineering trip to Argentina, Dr Michael Bonning took a photo of the curved horizon in the distance with the mountains peeking through a layer of cloud.
Although he doesn’t remember taking the photo, due to sheer exhaustion after summiting the mountain, the memento is a reminder of the beauty and joy of a simple moment, the challenge of the journey paying off.
Leader, advocate, researcher and clinician, UQ Distinguished Young Alumni for 2020 Dr Michael Bonning has never shied away from a challenge during a diverse career that’s so far taken him from Brisbane to the top of the world, literally.
Chair of the Australian Medical Association NSW (AMA NSW), inaugural Director of the Doctors Health Service and a former Director of Beyond Blue as well as being a general practitioner, Dr Bonning’s interest in advocacy started in his first year studying medicine at The University of Queensland.
“As a first-year medical student, I applied to the inaugural Australian Medical Students’ Association (AMSA) Leadership Development Seminar.
“Inspired by what I saw at the conference, I immediately decided I wanted to run AMSA one day,” Dr Bonning recalls.
Following one failed attempt to get there, Dr Bonning became AMSA president in 2008, which marked both the culmination of his university advocacy career and the start of his involvement in medico-politics.
Realising that he could make an impact by working as a GP and applying patient experiences to achieve the best in healthcare, Dr Bonning adopted an evidence-based approach to inform policy and political discourse.
“Before studying medicine, I was lucky enough to have had exposure to research during my undergraduate and honours years as a science student. The opportunity to deep dive into a specific area and influence outcomes based on the generation of new knowledge was, and continues to be, very appealing.
“I strongly believe that through advocacy and leadership we should use evidence to support our actions and actively work in the interests of those whose voices are less heard,” Dr Bonning says.
Dr Bonning’s passion for pushing physical boundaries, and his thirst for adventure have been another constant theme in his career.
As a former Medical Officer in the Royal Australian Navy, and as a current Chief Medical Officer for Inspired Adventures, Dr Bonning has experienced several overseas deployments.
“In this role, I’m able to combine my love for the great outdoors with the practical problem of solving medical issues in remote locations.
“I really enjoy helping people achieve trekking goals they never imagined possible, keeping them safe during the experience, and doing it all while exploring some of the most beautiful parts of the world,” Dr Bonning smiles.
Recognising the privilege he’s enjoyed throughout his life, Dr Bonning, with others from his graduating year, is now giving back, through an annual medical school bursary in paediatrics.
“The Dr Michael Reading Prize is named for one of our medical school colleagues who died suddenly. As a cohort, we recognise the opportunities we have had up to this point and, through philanthropy, are seeking to expand opportunities for others,” he says.
Dr Bonning credits a number of mentors who have helped guide him to where he is today, including UQ Professor John Pearn, Karen Worthington and former AMSA presidents Dr Dror Maor and Dr Rob Mitchell.
“Each of these people, and many, many others, have really inspired and encouraged me as they’ve always cared about looking after those around them. My life is forever better for knowing them,” Dr Bonning muses.
So what’s the next mountain to scale for Dr Bonning? Continuing his work to improve Australia’s healthcare system.
“I still haven’t lost the enthusiasm and idealism I had back when I was that optimistic first-year medical student.
“Our healthcare system needs to take its next steps very carefully. In my opinion, the current system is not geared towards helping people live longer and healthier lives with chronic disease. An ongoing shift in the funding and delivery models for healthcare needs to incentivise quality in clinical outcomes and prevention.
“We need to recognise, quantify and promote value in our health system, where we reduce care that has limited evidence or does not produce good results, and focus on the best evidence-based outcomes,” he says.