A rare COVID silver lining – Lauren Richardson on meeting ‘her people’ in VIC Department of Health

Lauren Richardson wears a face mask and shows her vaccination card and a band aid on her shoulder from the vaccination.

Jeremy Lasek, PHAA

Our recent request for your stories to capture the essence of a career in public health has uncovered fabulous case studies. Today, we meet Lauren Richardson, who found herself swept up in the Victorian Department of Health’s COVID-19 response.

Let’s start at the beginning. Lauren says she “fell into public health” after initially being drawn more to the medical side. That led her to undertake an honours program in health services research.

She was a research assistant at Macquarie University which sent her on a trajectory towards a PhD. But Lauren felt she wasn’t quite ready to commit to one area of interest, given how broad the health system is. This was partly prompted by her mentor who suggested she first focus on gaining more skills.

In many ways, Lauren’s move to the COVID response within the health department was career defining.

As things worsened and case numbers rose, Lauren asked what she could do to help a workforce which was struggling.

“At the time COVID hit Melbourne in mid-2020, I was 20 weeks pregnant,” Lauren recalled.

“I resigned from my usual role without hesitation to support the Epidemiology and Surveillance team, given I had a working knowledge of the state’s public health surveillance system, and soon found myself doing shift work, starting at 4am.

“It was an interesting time. At that point there was no evidence that pregnant women were at any greater risk against COVID; but then again there was nothing to say they weren’t either.”

As the COVID situation became dire in Melbourne last year, like millions of others, Lauren started working from home.

She was soon recruited for the COVID response Corporate, Finance and Logistics branch.

“Having a background in medical research and health, I hadn’t considered working in a ‘non-health’ related function of the COVID response,” Lauren said.

“When presented with two very different opportunities within the response, I went against my usual inclination toward an explicit health-related role and went with my gut to try something different. Working across the Corporate, Finance and Logistics branch gave me a better understanding of how different functions operate and work together to achieve outcomes.

“If given the opportunity, I would encourage others to assume roles which enable them to understand the machinery of government, including how to navigate its inherent complexities, regardless of their usual area of expertise. Remember, everything is related and relevant in some way.”

Taking four months off to have her baby provided an important personal distraction from work pressures.

Lauren returned early from maternity leave to continue supporting the branch, developing new skills as a strategic adviser for the Executive Director.

“On a personal note, it was quite challenging working from home with children/babies in a lockdown, but still working for the response which never slept,” Lauren said.

Toward the end of her time in the response, Lauren was appointed to the COVID-19 Policy and Strategy Team (the ‘Public Health team’).

“The whole experience blew my mind,” Lauren said. “I thought to myself, ‘these people are my people’.

“As terrible as COVID has been, for me personally, and for my career progression, there have been lots of silver linings. COVID brought about so many new opportunities.”

One included working closely with Victoria’s Chief Health Officer, Brett Sutton, who she described as ‘an amazing human being’.

“He is such a humble man. He has a presence that makes you feel you are part of something special.”

Lauren said she “secretly loved” the pace of the policy and strategy team’s work.

“There will always be something to do when supporting an emergency,” she explained

“You have to get good at switching off and being ‘off’ – no phone messages, texts, no news on. It was actually less stressful working in the response in terms of knowing whatever you left that day would still be there tomorrow, or it would be progressed by someone else – it’s a real team effort. Also, things would change sometimes by the minute. You had to learn to let go and pivot at the drop of a hat, if need be”.

Their team faced many challenges.

“Knowing what was about to occur, but not being able to tell a soul due to confidentiality and the sensitivity of the information they held. Also, letting go of perfection in my work and being comfortable with 99%, given the tight time frames on so many tasks.

“It was an insane time, and it was the adrenaline that kept you going, I’ll admit, when my COVID journey ended it was difficult to transition out.”

Lauren’s enjoying her new role in the cancer prevention team, which is currently focused on COVID and the impacts on screening services.

Best advice for someone starting out in public health?

Put your hand up for anything and everything. You never know where it might lead you.

Once your career is underway?

Get a mentor, undertake an MPH if possible, to gain broader knowledge of the field and get a sense of your strengths/interest areas. In terms of workplace, avoid staying in the same area for too long, take opportunities to explore other areas you wouldn’t normally consider, even if it doesn’t seem relevant, it is all related and relevant.

If you were Federal Health Minister for a day, what would you do?

Highlight the urgency and need to reimagine the future of public health and invest in it. The current health system is siloed and full of inefficiencies. Ultimately, we need to be working toward strengthening our health system by reducing the burden and costs of poor health, whilst simultaneously advancing the evidence that underpins decision making so we are better positioned to identify and respond rapidly to emerging public health threats.

If you want to share your story in our Intouch blog, contact us.

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