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Shalini Vinod: making work/life balance a success

By Linda Music

If anyone has got work/life balance right, it’s Professor Shalini Vinod, radiation oncologist at Liverpool’s Cancer Therapy Centre in Liverpool Hospital.

Combining motherhood with part-time work for the past two decades, Prof Vinod has managed to build a successful career which includes a solid academic profile, published research papers as well as the development of the hospital’s lung cancer multidisciplinary team (MDT) which, she claims, is “the best in NSW.”

South West Sydney’s Lung Cancer Multidisciplinary Team

Shalini lists the MDT, which she has chaired since 2001, as her greatest professional achievement.

“I nurtured and developed it and brought in processes and structures to make it a quality MDT which meets the framework of Cancer Australia,” she explains.

In a review paper  published last year, Prof Vinod showed that multidisciplinary care had a positive impact on a number of lung cancer outcomes including improved survival for all stages of lung cancer.

“Lung cancer patients managed in a multidisciplinary setting are more likely to receive treatment for their cancer, be referred to palliative care services and be treated according to guidelines. Here in South West Sydney (SWS) our lung cancer multidisciplinary team measures and provides feedback on the quality of care we deliver so we can continually improve our models of care.”

Research and clinical work

Radiation oncology has come a long way since Prof Vinod started her career in 1999.

“When I was at university, we only had one week of radiation oncology in the syllabus so there was very little exposure to it as a career,” says Prof Vinod.

“I was fortuitous to be placed in the radiation oncology department at Prince of Wales (POW) Hospital as an intern and it was there that my interest in the area really developed.

“I was influenced by a strong team of clinicians at POW, three of whom later moved to South West Sydney.”

Prof Vinod’s career move to SWS came when she took on a CCORE Fellowship at Ingham Institute under the guidance of Professor Michael Barton.

“It was a newly created position, with the role equally divided between research and clinical work.  I was actually the first CCORE Fellow.”

Since then, Prof Vinod has continued to divide her career between clinical work and research with much of her research centred around multidisciplinary care, and more recently, data mining and prediction models in lung cancer. She explains her interest in this area is because much of lung cancer research is based on clinical trials where participants do not share many of the characteristics of the patients seen in SWS. As a result, many lung cancer patients in SWS (and other jurisdictions) may not receive guideline-based care because these guidelines are not as applicable to this real-world population.

“In clinical trials, patients tend to be about 10 years younger with fewer co-morbidities,” she explains.

In fact, in her research Prof Vinod has shown that increasing age is a negative predictor for guideline treatment possibly due to the small amount of available data on treatment options for the elderly and concern about toxicity of treatments.

With only three percent of oncology patients enrolled in clinical trials, trying to translate the findings of this research to other patients is problematic. This is why the team is utilising the clinical data from their own patients, who represent the ‘real world’ population, to help predict patient survival with different treatment protocols.

“Using computer modelling, we can group patients into different risk categories and see which patients would have benefited from curative versus palliative radiotherapy.”

In addition to utilising data from their own patients, the team has collaborated with the MAASTRO clinic to develop the OzCAT (Australian computer assisted theragnostics) system to access data across multiple NSW cancer centres.

Professor Vinod explains that the system protects the individual privacy of patients whilst providing valuable information to guide clinical decisions.

When she’s not working Professor Vinod loves to exercise which includes going to the gym, running, swimming and cycling. An avid runner, she has participated in multiple City to Surf events, Sydney’s Bridge Run, as well as the Pink Triathlon. While her plans to run a half- marathon were derailed last year due to COVID restrictions, Prof Vinod continues to train knowing there could soon be another event around the corner.

“I love to do these organised events because they make me set my fitness goals.”

The way forward

Prof Vinod is proud of her achievements but her greatest one is raising her two children, the youngest of whom finished her HSC last year in challenging circumstances due to the pandemic.  

“At the end of the day, it ranks higher than any work achievement.”

It was her commitment to being there for her children that prompted Prof Vinod to choose part-time employment as the best option for her and the family.

“The idea of giving a job such as mine to a part-timer was breaking new ground at the time. I was very lucky that the centre was open to it.”

However, working part time has not detracted from her success.

“I’ve managed to strike a work/life balance that hasn’t impeded my ability to develop an academic profile and undertake research,” she says.

As she looks to the future, Professor Vinod hopes to be able to be a mentor and role model to other women.

“I’d like to influence and help women in their career trajectory whether it is in radiation oncology, other medical fields or research. There is still a lot of pressure for women to achieve the perfect work life balance. I would love to share my experiences and tips to help others just starting out on their career journey. ”

For the foreseeable, she sees herself continuing her clinical and research work in the field of radiation oncology with a particular emphasis on lung cancer.

“My priorities continue to be to improve the quality of care for lung cancer patients and to improve quality of radiation oncology care for all patients.”