Move outside your comfort zone to learn and grow, says Emerging Leader of 2022, Dr Joanne Flavel

Dr Jo Flavel sits in her wheelchair. The PHAA logo appears on both sides of the image.

Dr Joanne Flavel, 2022 PHAA Emerging Leader of the Year

Research Fellow at Stretton Health Equity in the Stretton Institute, Adelaide.

What was your reaction to winning the PHAA award?

I was just so thrilled. PHAA has many amazing volunteers who work so hard, and when I became an active member and began joining committee work, I was still finding my way in public health. To be recognised by an organisation that I learned so much from and that I respect has made my year.

Why did you choose a career in public health?

It is such important work. I have had a passion for social justice for a long as I remember and working in public health really feels like making a difference. I also had some very inspirational people who mentored me when I was starting to work in public health – Fran Baum, Anna Ziersch, and Toby Freeman. They helped me see how I could contribute and fit into the impressive work they do.

What do you enjoy about the day-to-day aspects of your job?

I am a quantitative researcher, and my day-to-day job involves quantitative analysis of social determinants and health inequities, but it also involves a multitude of other tasks that challenge me so I’m always learning, learning more about different public health issues, learning new skills, and I love that. I really enjoy data analysis and telling the story behind data to people (even if I don’t love our current trend of increasing inequality). I also work with people who share my interest in social determinants and health promotion, and we often work in partnership with NGOs so I also get to contribute in some small way to the important work they are doing, which always feels worthwhile.

What has been the highlight of your career so far?

I was organising a webinar on health inequalities in Australia and the contribution of key social determinants and my supervisor suggested I invite Mark Butler MP as a respondent to follow my presentation. He was the shadow minister for Health and Ageing and he said yes! I was a bit nervous giving my presentation but Mark was really interested, very across social determinants. His response to my presentation was great to listen to, especially because he said how timely my research was for him with thinking about health policy in the midst of the pandemic.

What public health issue do you think does not get the attention it deserves?

The long-term effects of COVID-19. The policy settings and protections in response to COVID-19 (emphasis on protections rather than restrictions because that is what they are/were) have been stripped away. Much of the messaging is about it being a mild disease when the emerging research is providing evidence that it is anything but mild. I think will be judged harshly by future generations. This is part of a wider issue where health equity does not get sufficient attention, because there is an inequitable burden of long COVID as with almost every disease that can be linked to social determinants. This is preventable, and that is beyond frustrating.

What lessons do you think we have learned from the COVID-19 pandemic?

We have all become experts at Zoom! We have learned how to connect with others and to include those who would usually miss out on opportunities where they cannot travel to meet in person. I think it has opened up the world a lot more in that much more events are now provided in accessible modes and interstate and international meetings allow people to meet who may not have had the opportunity in the past when it was more common to travel to meet in person. I have met a lot of people since early 2020 who I never would have met before, and it has also changed the way a lot of people work for those who are able to work from home. I am aware some events are moving to in-person only, but I hope we can retain what we have learned and keep those virtual options. Not only because they are more inclusive not just for people with disability and mobility difficulties, and the immunocompromised, but also for those with family commitments who might miss out if not for the virtual option.

What advice would you give to someone considering a career in public health?

Public health is a very broad field, so it is normal to be a bit unsure about which sub-field to pursue. Jobs in public health also often require experience so I’d recommend volunteering for organisations like PHAA or AHPA as this will help in learning more about public health, learning skills, meeting people, and identifying your passion.

Mentoring is also important so look for opportunities, formal or informal, because a mentor can help a lot in navigating that start to a career and knowing what the options are. Also don’t be scared to try new things whether it be learning new skills or contacting somebody who works in public health who you admire. Stepping a bit outside your comfort zone is how you grow and learn.

Was there anything else you wanted to add?

Just a big thank you! And encouragement to anybody considering joining PHAA, especially students and early career researchers and practitioners. Do it! You’ll learn so much.

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