Flinders University adjusts to attract and train next generation of public health leaders

Composite image features a portrait of Prof Billie Bonevski on the left and the roof of a Flinders University building, taken by Theen Moy

Professor Billie Bonevski – Flinders University

Recognising the central role public health plays in the most wicked of the global problems we face, Flinders University is reshaping and expanding its Public Health Discipline Group. I’ve been appointed this group’s new Lead, and my responsibilities include an emphasis on increasing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership and employment, on which I’ll expand shortly.

We also recognise that change is necessary. Things don’t improve by simply doing more of the same. We acknowledge that for the past decade or so, our Public Health programs could have been further strengthened and adapted to fulfil their potential, and meet community expectations.

An external review conducted prior to my arrival at Flinders concluded improvements were needed. Our early and mid-career academics lacked clear career paths and supportive scaffolding. It wasn’t all bad news though; Flinders’ focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health, health equity and its central Australian corridor presence were opportunities to build on.

Flinders University’s historical strengths included mapping of the social determinants of health, and our award-winning national centres focussing on point of care testing, injury studies and addition research were identified as strengths.

Steps we’re taking to increase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership and employment include recruiting for six new continuing teaching and research positions to broaden capacity and creating opportunities for early and mid-career academics. Two positions are reserved for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and we strongly encourage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to apply for all six roles. This will provide leadership and capacity at a level not seen at Flinders, and will stimulate research and innovation, uplift education, align with the University’s 2025 Making A Difference Strategy, and ensure our work is genuinely powerful.

Our University can further capitalise our strengths to build a more resilient and useful Public Health Discipline. Recently, the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) released its seven priority action areas as part of its #VoteForPublicHealth 2022 federal election campaign. The areas are:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health
  • Invest in preventive health
  • Invest in the national public health workforce
  • Establish a Centre for Disease Control and Prevention
  • Protect against unhealthy products
  • Climate and health, and
  • Healthy democracy and public policy making.

The future of Public Health at Flinders University aligns strongly with these priorities.

Firstly, we will place increased emphasis on ensuring that our Public Health research and teaching is promoting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health, and is led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics. This speaks to our Innovate Reconciliation Action Plan as it is directly related to increasing the workforce. We are creating two Indigenous Identified continuing research and teaching academic positions at Senior Lecturer and Associate Professor/Professor levels. The Associate Professor/Professor in First Nations Health will be the Lead of a new Discipline of Population Health. In addition, we have recently appointed an Aboriginal Public Health Teaching Specialist, together increasing our Public Health continuing academic staff in the Discipline from two (2.9%) to five (7.1%).

As articulated in our Reconciliation Action Plan, this will contribute to Flinders University’s ongoing work to increase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community participation, retention and success in higher education, and to celebrate Indigenous success and self-determination. The more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff we engage, the more it encourages Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students into study to fulfil their potential and improve the health of their own communities.

Secondly, our Discipline workforce development is focused on creating the next generation of Public Health researchers, educators and practitioners, through providing more early and mid-career opportunities. We’re creating six continuing research and teaching positions at predominantly early and mid-career levels – two Lecturer positions, two Senior Lecturer positions and two Associate Professor positions.

Thirdly, the changes are designed to reflect public health’s diversity and offer a stronger preventive health and disease prevention focus. The global pandemic has identified gaps in public health responsiveness and the necessity of an agile and adaptable public health workforce. MPH students will study core topics such as Biostatistics, Epidemiology, Health Economics, Public Health Policy and Health Promotion, and newer topics like Digital Health and Emergency and Crisis Preparedness.  The Social Determinants of Health will remain a core component of our MPH program, and together with First Nations Health, will be taught by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics. We will integrate our subject offerings with our Flinders Department of Rural Remote Health to stay true to our regional community and address key public health challenges such as climate change impacts on rural and remote health.

What’s my number one priority for Public Health? Without hesitation, it’s the next generation of public health leaders. They will be the ones who continue to reduce health inequities, improve the health and wellbeing of society, promote community cohesion, build health literacy and cultural awareness, and prepare us for future challenges.

Billie Bonevski is Professor of Public Health and Lead, Public Health in the College of Medicine and Public Health at Flinders University.

Note: The six positions are advertised on the PHAA jobs site.

Image: Composite of Prof Billie Bonevski (supplied) and Flinders University campus by Theen Moy/Flickr.

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