Jeremy Lasek – PHAA
We continue our series celebrating the achievements of leading lights in Australia’s public health networks who’ve been deservedly recognised in the 2022 Australia Day Honours. Today we meet Professor Julie Byles AO.
Julie was honoured as an Officer in the Order of Australia ‘for her distinguished service to medical research, to gerontology, and to professional scientific organisations’.
Professor Byles is both a clinical epidemiologist and, being an Australian Association of Gerontology Fellow, is also a gerontologist. She has numerous specific interests in both areas, including:
- Risk determination
- Health outcome measurement
- Older people’s quality of life (and how to maintain it)
- Mental and physical health in ageing (and the many aspects that can influence this health)
As the Global Innovations Chair in Responsive Transitions in Health and Ageing at the University of Newcastle, Julie has dedicated more than 35 years to improving the health of Australians with a particular focus on learning from women aged 70 years or up, who are often ‘invisible’ to some people.
Having joined the PHAA in the late 1980s, Julie is one of our longest-serving members. We appreciated the opportunity to speak with Julie about her remarkable career and what keeps her motivated.
Why did you choose a career in public health?
“I was originally attracted to study at the University of Newcastle because of the community approach. I think I have always been a believer in social capital, and I think that is where much health is generated. In the overlapping spaces between people, and how we support each other.
“Opportunity also played a part, with a chance to do a PhD in health behaviour, and then opportunities to teach health promotion and clinical epidemiology as a post-doc.”
What part of your work gives you the greatest satisfaction?
“Probably working with PhD students and early and mid-career researchers. My most satisfying moments are the points when I realise my students know more than me. Then, when they graduate, they can go on to do fabulous things. It’s all them of course, but I can have a bit of pride by association.
“I have also been compelled by the oldest participants in the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health (ALSWH). They have been an inspiration, and they still are. I am a lucky person to enter my later life with 12,432 ‘advisors’ telling me what might lay ahead, and how to make the most of it.”
(ALSWH is a large study that tracks women and their health and wellbeing over time, to help determine any important characteristics that influence their health).
How has COVID impacted your life and your work?
“I’m working at home a lot. I abandoned my office on the 5th of August last year, and only went back in the last fortnight. I am surprised there weren’t 15 mouldy coffee cups waiting for me.
“The big impact is that my international colleagues discovered Zoom and so I haven’t slept for the last two years. There is always an international meeting, panel or presentation somewhere. All those events they wouldn’t bother flying me over for, suddenly, I am hot property from Down Under.
“I’m also working on an international conference right now on the impact of COVID on older people. That will take place in July this year in Argentina, and of course I don’t expect to be going.”
Who would you like to give a shout-out to?
“I joined the original investigators of the ALSWH in 1994 because I wanted to have strong female academic role models. So, I would like to give a shout out to Professor Annette Dobson who was the original director of the study. I’m not sure we knew what we had started when we did but it gave me a great opportunity to be mentored by an amazing group of senior female role models.
“I’d also like to give a shout out to Professor Sally Redman who is a long-time champion of improving health and health services and she was co-supervisor of my PhD.”
If you were the Minister for Health for a day, what would you do? Your priority?
“My day in the Minister’s job will be pretty busy…
“I always said I would speed up access to cataract surgery. Quick correction of vision problems allows people to continue to participate more fully in life.
“I would make the Medicare funded assessments a minimum data collection.
“I would allow greater access to allied health for older people with an emphasis on prevention.
“I would focus on better integration of health and social care around the needs of the older person, and the trajectory of their changing capacity (past, present and future). The future trajectory may be altered through intervention. Or, if alteration is not possible, current and future needs for support can be predicted and implemented. The importance is the focus on change, prediction and prevention.
“I see a ‘wide window of opportunity’ for prevention of disease and disability in later life, and with aged care as the ‘long tail of prevention’.”
What advice would you have for someone considering a career, or starting out in a career in public health?
“Join an association, and get involved in the activities of the association. Reach out to people, even if they are very senior.
“I joined the PHAA way back when I was doing my PhD, seeing it as a good opportunity to go to conferences and present my work. It also provided an opportunity for others who I respected to critique my work.
“Mentoring is also very important and it’s not necessarily the formal process that works best. You often just find a natural affiliation with some people and there are times you might not even realise someone is being a mentor or a support for you.
“From my observation, when women mentor, they give advice. When men mentor, they act as a sponsor. I’d encourage more women to step up to act as a sponsor, doing more than just sharing their experience and knowledge.”
What’s coming next for you in your career?
“I’m going to be concentrating more on leadership and advocacy.
“Internationally, I am Co-President of the International Longevity Centre Global Alliance – so that involves a lot of international collaboration and representation.
“Closer to home I’m looking to do a lot more advocacy and engagement to work with our local community to improve participation by older people and the supports they can receive.”
Is there anything you’d like to add?
“One of the pandemics we haven’t talked about is the pandemic of ageism.
“I’m particularly interested in the debate about ‘is old age a disease’?
“Of course, ageing is not a disease, it’s simply a circumstance of life and everyone has to adapt to that.
“I’d like to see more people start planning for their future aged care needs at the time of their retirement. That’s a great time to be looking forward much further to their future.
“Instead of that concept of writing a note to your younger self, I’d like to see people write a letter to their older self.
“Consider, what sort of an older person do I want to be in 20-25 years?”