Päivi’s story: I want to make sure that people in my organization are feeling well

Career story

I knew very early that I wanted to work in an academic profession. Why? I didn’t really know anyone who had gone to university, but people read a lot in my home, and education was something that was encouraged and invested in.

Studying felt easy and meaningful. I figured that it was a way to earn a permanent and adequate income. I also remember dreaming of studying in old European universities – Bologna, Coimbra. The names tickled my imagination.

However, the daily life of the 1990s recession was something completely different. How to make ends meet was an everyday worry and I wanted to make sure I had what it took to live free of that worry. But wanting to become a doctor was quite a coincidence. I was not familiar with other academic professions, but I had at least seen a doctor in my life and understood what their job entailed. I didn’t get to medical school right away, which I now consider to be a blessing, because during the gap years I had time to get to know myself and study enough chemistry and physics that I knew I couldn’t make them into my profession.

Since a young age, I have been interested in interaction and, in particular, why it so often goes wrong. Even in secondary school, I had been told – after acting like a fool – that I have the ability to influence people’s opinions and that I should use this skill with care. That message hit me hard, and I often still think about it. What do I bring with me to interactions, how do I get people on my side, why do I want people on my side?

I started working at a very young age. I started handing out ads already in primary school, and I’ve “always” worked ever since. Free secondary education was a distant dream of the future, and so I funded my upper secondary school studies, everything from bus fares to books. I cleaned homes, babysat children, washed rugs and windows, and learned sales at a burger stand, berry stand and R-kioski. When I was in upper secondary school, I got into a nursing home as a nursing assistant, and I still consider it one of the best experiences of my working life. I learned many things at the same time: the basics of nursing, such as chatting with the residents, washing, dressing, arranging and running meals, making beds, cleaning and doing laundry. As a bonus, I improved my Swedish language skills. I worked as a nursing assistant until I was a 4th year student, working as a substitute physician for the first time. Years of nursing taught me not only how to listen to clients but also teamwork. As a physician, I find it particularly important to learn how to get a team on your side: by listening, being respectful and doing things together.

Nothing is possible alone

I graduated from the Swedish-language line of Helsinki med school in 2003. As a young physician, I travelled around Finland for various medical assignments. I enjoyed the urgent pace of emergency clinics and the fact that things got resolved there quickly – at least from the physician's point of view. I enjoyed difficult patient cases in psychiatry and multiprofessional teamwork, but I was frustrated that there didn’t seem to be actually enough resources for anything.

In health centre work, I particularly liked long-term patient relationships and committed staff who made working together easy. But everywhere I went, I had the feeling that “this could be arranged better”. I easily noticed shortcomings and was ready to solve them. This didn’t escape my supervisors, and I started to get all kinds of “additional tasks” – initially small development projects, then larger ones.

I deliberately sought work with an employer where I thought the pace of changes would be faster than in public specialised medical care, and so it was. My years at Terveystalo – which was a fast-growing company at the time, eventually going public – helped me grow from a young occupational health physician into a chief physician of medical development, as I was given the opportunity to lead demanding projects related to improving quality and patient safety in various networks. At the same time, I gained more understanding of business and the customer experience in particular.

From there, I was recruited to the Finnish Student Health Service. Over the course of a few years, I carried out a major transition where, due to a legislative amendment, students from universities of applied sciences became included in the services of the FSHS. The most important lesson for me during that time was the importance of cooperation; the entire organisation had to work together as big things were happening. Nothing is possible alone.

I eagerly look forward to future years

I started at my current job as Secretary General of the Finnish Medical Society Duodecim in August 2022. Looking back, it is easy to see that, throughout my career, I have progressed towards professional leadership and the development of management. I feel that I am a leader in service of others: I want to make sure that people in my organisation are feeling well and eager to work towards a common goal.

Although I have been able to talk a lot about knowledge-based management during my career, I think that dialogue and achieving things through it are much more important. Even the best information will not help us lead anything if we do not engage people on an emotional level, get them excited and doing their best. This requires an open, confidential atmosphere, plenty of autonomy and a committed work community. I eagerly look forward to future years, and I hope to be able to further develop Duodecim in its basic task, which is to support physicians at all stages of their career by producing good medical information and developing physicians’ competence. 

Still, work is not the be-all and end-all in my life; it is something that makes other aspects of life possible. The most important of all is my family. I make all my plans and decisions on their terms, including ones concerning my career. We are a tight-knit unit that does everything together. We are closely involved in our boys’ hobbies – American football and ice hockey – and we travel whenever we can while also knowing how to enjoy normal everyday life. I like to read – fiction, not professional literature – all the time and try to be interested in everything that happens in the world. I do yoga and run. But above all, I get enough sleep. Without it, it is impossible to stay human.

For people stepping into the world of work or thinking about possible career changes, I would like to give a tip: try different kinds of things. Say “yes” readily when there is something that strongly speaks to your values – and “no” when your well-being and that of your family and friends requires it. There will always be more opportunities, and you can only be open to them if there is enough space in your life and thinking.

Päivi Metsäniemi
Secretary General
Finnish Medical Society Duodecim