A typical day for me means getting up early and straight onto the computer. As well as being President of the RSM’s Epidemiology & Public Health Section, I’m President of the UK Faculty of Public Health (FPH). It’s a privilege to have been voted into these roles so I feel it’s very important to respond to everyone who gets in touch with me. I can probably be found sending emails very early in the morning and very late at night.
My day job is running the public health training programme in the South West of England, and I also work on programme development in the region. I spend the day in meetings with colleagues, sometimes in other countries around the world.
Finding time for exercise
I probably spend far too much time behind a computer screen, but one of the things I try to do every day is to get some exercise. When we had the first big lockdown I’d sometimes be out in the dark with my torch and fluorescent jacket because I hadn’t managed to get a walk in during the day.
Walking is such a healthy thing to do and I’m lucky enough to live in rural Wiltshire where I’m surrounded by open fields. At the moment, they’re mostly full of leeks and cabbages, but there'll be new spring crops coming soon and it’s beautiful to see the changes through the seasons. Sir Muir Gray introduced me to the ‘walking cure’.
Public health in the spotlight
The pandemic has led to public health having a much higher profile. Often people working in public health are very modest and unassuming. They go about their business protecting and promoting the public's health without any expectation of special recognition or rewards. Now there’s an awareness of people working in public health at the national level, through the UK’s four chief medical officers (CMOs) and the national public health agencies, regionally and locally, through our directors of public health. It’s been very helpful for people to understand the importance of public health and health inequalities.
Health inequalities central to public health
With society and the government now focusing on health inequalities, it’s essential that we capitalise on the opportunities to bring these issues centre stage and achieve change through policy and action. As specialists in health inequalities, my public health colleagues have a leading role to play in making this happen.
I've been working in public health for nearly 40 years and have worked in local, regional and national roles with different national agencies. The beauty of public health is that if you have the basic training and skills, there are great opportunities to work at every population level and to influence what's happening in the whole country.
Public health as a career
Public health is one of the most over-subscribed medical specialties. We are a medical specialty with a multi-disciplinary entrance route and we have more than 10 applications for each training post from people who fit the eligibility criteria. Interestingly, applications have increased during the pandemic, despite the specialty being in major incidence mode throughout the entire pandemic.
It's not just the pandemic that is causing this increased level of interest in public health as a career. Young people today are very concerned about climate change and health inequalities – the two really big issues causing health crises across the world.
The other factor is the frustration of seeing the same societal problems every day – whether in primary care or in hospital trusts – and being unable to influence and improve the situation. People are interested in how we can effect change to improve the whole population’s health.
Support from collaborative working
In July I shall come to the end of my three-year presidency of the Faculty of Public Health. One of the very best things about being President of the FPH is that I’m able to join with other presidents through the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and, of course, through the RSM.
The support from these collaborative groups, where you're working with colleagues who are doing a similar job to you, has been amazingly helpful. For all of us, the pandemic has continued through most of our presidential terms of office and it has been an extraordinary experience.
The push for global vaccine equity
I'm extremely proud that as the public health community, we have been able to work with other specialties and other presidents to call for global vaccine equity. We can be much more powerful as a group if we work together on some of these really important issues that affect the whole world.
The Delta and Omicron variants have led to a growing understanding that if the whole world is not vaccinated then we cannot be safe ourselves in the UK. While people are still exposed to COVID-19 and variants of concern, we are going to be exposed in the UK, even with our wonderful vaccine programme.
The UK has provided some vaccine supply to be used by low-income countries. However, it’s simply not enough and we desperately need to increase the amount of vaccines available. Also, the situation is very complex – it’s a much bigger issue than just supply. Many people working in public health have worked in vaccination programmes across the world and we know only too clearly that simply supplying the vaccine is only part of the solution. You've got to make sure that the whole infrastructure and supply chain is set up to get the vaccines to the right people and populations. We also need many of these countries to be able to develop their own ability to produce vaccines. India is a fantastic example of that, but we need other countries to be doing the same.
The Faculty of Public Health and the RSM working in tandem
There’s a lot of synergy to be gained between the FPH and the RSM. Many fellows of the FPH have traditionally been members of the RSM. While the FPH is responsible for the standards and functions of public health in the UK, many other specialists and scientists have a strong interest in public health and health inequalities. This gives us the opportunity to build alliances through the RSM and complement and extend the reach of our public health work. One example would be our collaboration with the Occupational Health Section where I was invited to speak at the excellent event they ran towards the end of last year.
I’m delighted that on 19 May 2022, the FPH in collaboration with the RSM will be hosting the four CMOs of the United Kingdom, who will be speaking about the importance of the public health profession at an event to celebrate the FPH’s 50th anniversary.
Taking inspiration from the leaders of yesterday, today and tomorrow
We’ve had some exceptional, inspirational leaders in public health including Sir Donald Acheson who as CMO between 1983 and 1991 was instrumental in the transformation of public health, and the current CMO for England Professor Sir Chris Whitty and his colleagues Professor Sir Michael McBride in Northern Ireland, Dr Sir Frank Atherton in Wales and Professor Sir Gregor Smith in Scotland.
I am inspired too by our young people across the whole of medicine. They have the vision and ambition to really improve the health outcomes of the population, and we should listen to them more and encourage and support them to take the lead.
In my own professional practice, I spend a lot of my time on working with colleagues who are in the public health training scheme, encouraging them to take on leadership roles. During the pandemic we saw some great examples of public health registrars working with some of the most senior colleagues in the system and helping to bring transformation to the response.
The RSM as a warm and welcoming institution
I think the RSM is a very special place and it is our role as leaders to make sure everyone recognises it as a welcoming and accessible organisation. As we begin to get back into society and return to face-to-face working, we may be inclined to stay within our own networks when we take part in events. I’d like to urge us all to look around the room and make sure we talk to the people we don't know and make sure they feel welcomed and have the confidence to join in with the work of this wonderful institution.
Professor Maggie Rae will introduce the 2022 DARE Lecture in conjunction with the RSM, which will be delivered by the four Chief Medical Officers of the UK on 19 May. Book to join the livestream.