Associate Professor Sophie Dwyer (right), received the 2022 Sidney Sax Medal from PHAA President, Adjunct Professor Tarun Weeramanthri (left), recently in Adelaide. This is the third story in our series of 2022 PHAA award winners.
What is your job title?
I retired from my role as Executive Director, Health Protection, Queensland Health in 2022.
What was your reaction to winning the PHAA award?
Humbled. Firstly – the award has such a long and important tradition and to be a small part of that tradition is very special. Also, I recognised that I always worked as part of a team – with many talented people in Queensland Health and across government. I could not have achieved what I did without them.
Why did you choose a career in public health?
I certainly did not plan it. I began my early career as the first employee of the Queensland Workers Health Centre after finishing a degree in social work. The job was all about empowering people to take action to protect their health. I loved the technical and scientific aspects of the work so I did some further study in environmental science focussing on pollution and health. That introduced me to some of the fundamentals of public health. A job came up in the epidemiology part of the health department which sort of related to my training. From then on, I was gripped. Public health is full of many and varied roles.
What do you enjoy about the day-to-day aspects of your job?
I loved working with talented people to solve difficult problems. Some of the issues had a big impact on the health and wellbeing of the community so it was satisfying to see change occur.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
I had the opportunity to advocate for and oversee the development programs that supported addressing environmental health issues in First Nations communities. The programs were centred around building skills and capability in the community, creating real jobs for First Nations people in their communities.
The second was improving our capability to address water quality issues across Queensland, and associated with that, supporting the introduction of fluoridation into Queensland communities drinking water supplies.
What public health issue do you think does not get the attention it deserves?
Many environmental health issues interact, and if I had another 40 years in the field, climate change would of most significance. But there are still basic environmental health issues that are not being managed, which climate change and other ecological changes only exacerbate. The impacts of housing and health, the urban environment, and water quality in remote and rural communities are still underdone.
What lessons do you think we have learned from the COVID-19 pandemic?
Public health is a social policy process. It differs from the clinical world as both public health issues and the measures needed to change them require changes at the social policy level. So as a public health person in government, much of my focus was about supporting other agencies address the COVID implications for their policy areas. But the challenge is that the public health expertise that supports that work is not necessarily valued.
It also exposed the vulnerabilities in our public health workforce. No one knew what an epidemiologist did until COVID, then everyone became armchair experts. There are really very few epidemiologists in health agencies across Australia. And epidemiology is not just statistics!
We also needed to use all our public health tools to address the problem. Health promotion, community engagement, science and research, environmental health and even engineering needed to joint with traditional disease control capabilities.
And as someone who spent many years administering public health legislation, the application of public health law to the problem became critical. It is an area that even many public health professionals had devalued. The community probably gets it more that many public health professionals. PH professions often see legislation as a last resort as opposed to a framework for supporting action. Implementing it effectively (which doesn’t just mean in a punitive manner) is a skill set in itself.
What advice would you give to someone considering a career in public health?
It will never bore you. There are so many opportunities in different programs. The broad public health skill set can contribute to solving many problems.
Also, government is critical to ensuring effective public health programs. Understand how government works, and how to work in government or with government, to effect change.