Public Health professionals share their working life lessons

The Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) has been calling for the urgent need to address the state of the nation’s public health workforce. The current pandemic has demonstrated the limitations of existing public health workforce resourcing and planning and the need for all governments to step up funding as a priority. Sadly, to date we’ve seen little change.

With an eye to the future, the PHAA’s Students and Young Professionals in Public Health (SYPPH) committee last week hosted a webinar to provide valuable insights into careers in public health. A range of experts shared their experiences in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health, academia, community development, epidemiology, public health nutrition, health promotion and policy.

Here’s a summary of the key take home points from what was a very informative session.

Alana Munro is a Policy Officer at the Australian Department of Health

Having chosen to undertake a Bachelor of Health Sciences, Alana is currently a PhD student and happy to share some great advice from her experience starting out in the public health workforce.

Alana looked for internships and volunteering roles while studying to gain valuable experience and to foster a greater understanding of public health.

‘In the end I gravitated towards working in government and I kept my eye out for opportunities in the Commonwealth’s graduate programs,’ Alana said.

Following what she described as a ‘relatively simple application process’ which involved demonstrating how she could ‘write for government’, Alana undertook a group exercise to show she could work collaboratively, and an interview where she highlighted her skills and attributes, she landed a graduate role in the Australian Department of Health.

Alana’s advice at interview is ‘to trust in whatever experience you have and to demonstrate your passion and willingness to learn. Demonstrate something you’ve achieved to show your ability, be honest because they’re looking for authenticity, and do your homework ahead of your interview.’

Her first year on the job involved three rotations to experience the broad areas of work covered under the health portfolio.

In the time that’s followed Alana has undertaken a number of different roles in the department including in population health, aged care policy, and advising government on women’s health and chronic disease prevention. She is currently working on sexual and reproductive health policy.

‘I really enjoy working on something that’s bigger than myself and helping to shape national health outcomes,’ Alana said. ‘Start early to cultivate your skills so they become more transferrable within your department or workplace.

‘My advice is to try to demonstrate not how long you’ve been in the seat, or the years you’ve been working, but aim to demonstrate your enthusiasm and ability to bring fresh eyes to a problem.’

Dr Erin Pitt is a Research Fellow at the Cancer and Palliative Care Outcomes Centre at the Queensland University of Technology.

Erin opened her presentation by setting the scene and the flexibility needed in the current workforce: ‘If you’d asked me 10 years ago could I see myself then, where I am now, I’d definitely say ‘no’.’

Early on, she found herself delivering lectures and described it as ‘an eye-opener into how the academic world works. I loved it, but then COVID hit.’

Erin outlined the challenges she and her colleagues faced delivering classes online during the pandemic, and ultimately, she found herself out of a job.

‘I had a PhD but found myself competing with so many other people when jobs were so scarce.’

She applied for a senior research assistant role, a position which doesn’t require a PhD and to her disappointment, Erin didn’t get an interview.

‘I sent the chair of the interview panel an email to seek feedback about how my application might have been stronger. The chair responded that it was a highly competitive process and I wasn’t what they were looking for,’ Erin said.

‘About a month later they contacted me to say no one else was found to be suitable and I was asked in for an interview. Eventually, I got the job, and I was subsequently promoted into a research fellow position to recognise the good work I was doing.

‘This certainly wasn’t where I thought I’d be right now but I’m loving every minute of it and I guess my message is all about perseverance, determination and resilience,’ Erin said.

Liana Bellifimini is a Senior Community Development Officer for the Alcohol and Drug Foundation.

Liana described her work journey as similar to Erin’s. She found her current role through the Ethical Jobs website.

Liana described her time lecturing as ‘a different, rich experience and it certainly toughens you.’

Her passion however is working in communities to promote population health. Liana started as a part-time community development officer with the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, progressing to a fulltime senior role.

In her four years with the Foundation, Liana believes strong written and verbal communication skills have been essential in her stakeholder management roles managing multiple drug action teams.

‘While there are huge challenges, I implore you to step up to the challenge and back yourself,’ Liana added.

Dr Shelley Bowen is the Chief Executive Officer at Health Futures Australia.

Shelley opened her presentation saying ‘a career in prevention and population health can be incredibly rewarding.’

Her multi-faceted career has spanned working in youth health, women’s health, in dynamic health promotion teams and in a policy role in NSW Health.

‘A big part of my career has been challenging the systems we’ve had in place…my passion in life is that prevention needs to be properly invested in, to make a positive difference,’ Shelley said.

She believes the essence of population health is ‘impact, scale, reach and connections.’

With this in mind, Shelley founded the health promotion charity, Health Futures Australia with the mission of mobilising a systemic change approach to health and wellbeing and the prevention of chronic disease.

She believes communities are often the solutions to health challenges and ‘government alone is not sufficient.’

Sharing her working life experience, Shelley described her career as being in 3 to 5 year cycles.

‘Where can I learn and where can I build? I love being in this space right now, shaping a new future in population health,’ Shelley said.

‘Boldness, courage and the disruption required is such an important part of our toolkit.

‘Australia has always led the world and we need to create new models to create the shift that we need.’

Shelley also shared her experience of the ‘pain and real impact’ Victorians had experienced during the long COVID lockdown in 2020.

‘This is the time for prevention and population health but we’re not responding anywhere near as well as we should be,’ Shelley lamented.

Professor James Ward is Director of the Poche Centre for Indigenous Health at the University of Queensland.

James told the webinar that the effects of COVID had had a major impact on his work, describing the absolute priority since the start of 2020 as preventing COVID from entering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

‘The pandemic has closed communities, it has impacted on our research, and given the impact of COVID we will ask for extensions to allow us to deliver our projects which have been delayed,’ James said.

He said working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities presented many opportunities to address the social determinants of health.

James spoke of the impact of climate change and a warming planet on Indigenous communities in central and northern Australia.

‘There have been many achievements in public health which is exciting and we are reimagining the way we address public health,’ he said.

He said there was an absolute need for the health inequities in Australia to be addressed ‘and we absolutely need the best people working in public health for our nation’s good.’


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