Burning questions at ‘fireside chat’: three state public health chiefs provide insights

Fire with dark background.

Melanie Parker, PHAA

Three of Australia’s public health chiefs explored the past, present and future of public health in Australia during this year’s Population Health Congress 2022 in Adelaide.

New South Wales Chief Health Officers Dr Kerry Chant PSM, Victorian Chief Health Officer Professor Brett Sutton, and Tasmanian Director of Public Health Dr Mark Veitch recalled crisis communication (including during COVID-19), the public health workforce, domestic woodfires and other topics during their plenary session.

Plenary 2: Past, present and future of public health in Australia: A fireside chat



Professor Sutton on crisis communication

“COVID has really taught me a number of lessons” began Prof Sutton, who then went on to discuss opportunities for strengthening crisis communication.

One of his key points on crisis communication was that public health professionals must “bring our fully authentic selves into the space.”

He noted that honesty and authenticity in communication is crucial and emphasised the importance of not bending the truth. He explained why we should not downplay the complexity of COVID-19 decision making, including the “paradox of decision making when there is no path of no harm.”

“That means talking to the nuance, talking to the complexity, acknowledging the difficulties in coming to the decisions that you make [and the] collective trauma that people are going through.”

Prof Sutton noted that “saying sorry for some of the poor decisions … some of the missteps that have happened along the way are also really important…”

He also discussed the benefits of “pre-bunking” for addressing misinformation and disinformation and encouraged media training for anyone thinking of entering public health practice.


A Tasmanian perspective

Dr Veitch, Director of Public Health in Tasmania, gave his personal reflections on lessons learned from COVID-19.

He praised the collegiality of public health colleagues, and more widely across the nation, saying that it helped make the COVID-19 response possible.

On COVID-19 communication, Dr Veitch described the challenges of situation complexity and uncertainty, and ensuring clear but sufficiently detailed health communications.

He also discussed how early on in the pandemic there was useful information on safety and immunogenicity, but there was a gap in knowledge around the “efficacy of vaccines against various outcomes, and that only became clearer some way into the vaccination programs…”

He noted that we have now reached an understanding that “we know that COVID vaccines provide much greater protection against the severe outcomes of COVID infection than against infection itself and transmission.”

Dr Veitch also discussed the clear differences in the proportions of the population affected by COVID-19 versus annual influenza.

A key, long-standing challenge for public and preventive health as a field is how to effectively construct the narrative and communications about the “serious outcomes averted” (such as the number of lives saved from preventive interventions).

Finally, Dr Veitch flagged the opportunity to use lessons learned during COVID-19 to address other priority issues in public health, mentioning the deaths attributable to domestic woodfires in Tasmania over the last three winters.


Key reflections from Dr Chant

Dr Chant explored the health inequalities highlighted by COVID-19, noting the age-standardised death rate for COVID-19 was “two times higher for those born overseas” and that “those born in the Middle East [had] the highest age-standardised death rate.”

“The number of people who died due to COVID was over three times higher in the most disadvantaged quintile compared to quintile five, the least disadvantaged.

“We see this across so many health conditions,” said Dr Chant.

She noted the importance of equitable, affordable access to primary care for addressing health inequalities.

Finally, Dr Chant also discussed the communication of uncertainty and the need to communicate and acknowledge that evidence can change, and therefore public health responses will also change.

On effective health messaging, Dr Chant noted that principles of co-design, continual reflection, and multidisciplinary teams that include a range of professionals such as social researchers are crucial.



Q&A session

After presentations from each official, the room engaged in a Q&A session.

Delegates, who included Dr Michael Doyle, Dr Zelalem Mengesha, Professor Emily Banks AM, and Professor Boyd Swinburn, asked questions on topics including engaging with culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) populations. They also covered Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, early career professionals, the Australian Centre for Disease Control, and the public and population health workforce.


Early career advice

When asked to give advice to early career population health professionals, Dr Veitch noted the broadness of the field, and that people should “just give it a go.”

Prof Sutton emphasised that public health professionals across sectors must try and maximise research translation, to ensure we can “change the big picture”.

Dr Chant said that health departments need to be more accessible to academics, and that close engagement is crucial.

“We also have to change and make it easy for young researchers to know how to navigate and get feedback across the policy and health system response.”

Dr Chant also challenged us regarding the definition of success, saying “wouldn’t it be great if public health physicians were dually trained in economics and were in Treasury… [or if] public health professionals … were in planning departments?”


Plenary 2 was chaired by Professor Caroline Miller, Director of the Health Policy Centre at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI). Professor Miller is also the Vice President (Policy) at the Public Health Association of Australia.

This is the second in a series of blogs summarising highlights from Population Health Congress 2022, held 21-23 September 2022 on Kaurna Country (Adelaide). Read the first instalmentand stay tuned for additional instalments.

Recordings of Population Health Congress 2022 sessions will be available to delegates for three months post-Congress, on the event’s virtual platform.

The Population Health Congress 2022 was hosted by the Public Health Association of Australia, Australian Health Promotion Association, Australasian Epidemiological Association, and Australasian Faculty of Public Health Medicine.


Featured image: Cullan Smith/Unsplash 

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