When I decided to move from General Medicine to Public Health, the training in Oxford offered me the right platform to pursue my dream. It provided the right elements of training which helped me to transition from a trainee to a consultant. I received the right balance of guidance and independence through the various stages of my training. It gave me the confidence to develop my leadership and provided me with a safety net to explore my potential. I had the opportunity to form networks which helped to shape my public health career.
I joined the Public Health training scheme in 2004 after qualifying in Medicine and having the seeds of public health work sown in me during a three year Masters in Community Medicine at St. Johns Medical College, Bangalore, India. The efforts of the Head of School, her team and the various trainers (i.e. jobbing consultants and directors) located around the Thames Valley region ensured that the public health seeds didn’t meet an untimely end and nurtured me towards a career in communicable disease control where I currently ply my trade.
Key attractions of training in public health in Oxford:
A year long MSc to help strengthen core knowledge (and meet like-minded individuals from different parts of the world with a variety of experiences) put me in a good position to get over the Faculty of Public Health membership exams.
The opportunities to work in a variety of NHS, academic and local government placements. Within Thames Valley you will get to work with different populations and deprivation groups while being close enough to London to explore training placements in the Department of Health or central agencies.
Close working with other specialty registrars during training days and the social events which don’t lag far behind. The importance of this is usually realised in the first few years as a ‘fresh’ consultant!
My story comes in Public Health comes in three parts: the seeking, the finding and the blossoming. Throughout it all I owe such a debt to many colleagues who have inspired me and helped me along the way.
Part 1: The Seeking;
Life is strange. Who knows what pattern the fates are weaving……
My life in public health began before I knew what it was. I was a young doctor displaced in war torn Afghanistan from my home in the capital Kabul to the Northern province of Mazar-E-Sharif. I worked for Oxfam and later UNICEF looking after refugee camps and trying to promote women’s’ health. This is where I was caught by the magical spell of Public Health – in the unlikely setting of latrines and the human rights of women. I had taken a sip from the cup of Public health and I wanted to drink deeply.
In 1996 I resigned from my posts in my home country and came on my own, living off savings and temporary jobs to London to try to find a way to study Public Health. Looking back, the lack of a plan was terrifying, but I heard the call and I followed it. As I could barely speak or write English my first step was to get these up to scratch and pass the exams to get me onto the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Eventually I was accepted for the MSc Course ‘Public Health in Developing Countries’, funded by part time work in newsagents, hotel reception, translating business documents and even in Burger King.
The plan was to return home and get to work on improving the Public health of my country…… but home was now a full-scale war zone. I couldn’t get home, I was separated from my family and I was a refugee… so what next? How could I use my new-found skills?
My course supervisor at the LSHTM appointed me as an academic research assistant and suggested I should make a contact which was life changing….. I went to talk to Dr Premila Webster about the formal training scheme. Premila was an inspiration and, to cut a long story short, via a six month trainee locum post in Health Protection in Berkshire I was lucky enough to get onto the Registrar Training Scheme for Thames Valley….
Part 2: The Finding:
Wow!! This was it!! Real Public health at last – I could not believe my luck and I was so grateful to be given this chance. I thank this great Country for taking me- a refugee- and giving me this chance. Sometimes I don’t think we realise how lucky we are to live here in the UK.
Now I had really ‘found myself’ and things went from strength to strength. Under Premila’s guidance I had a series of marvellous placement as a trainee:
One year in Slough working with the disadvantaged in a Unitary Authority – this gave me a love of local Government and a one year placement soon became two years.
Next I went off to Oxfordshire County Council as the first trainee to be placed in Local Government – I was eager to know how two-tier Local Government worked and was soon hard at it, negotiating parts of their ‘Local Area Agreement’. I loved every minute.
Pursuing the Local Government theme I was next posted to the Government Office of the South East which was fascinating and then to the South East Public Health Observatory to strengthen my skills in epidemiology in larger populations.
Next came the Department of Health. I was privileged to help negotiate the first ‘National Childhood Measurement Scheme’ and saw something of the ‘corridors of power’ in operation.
Finally I went to Oxford Primary Care Trust to do ‘pre-consultant’ work - figuring out how to make emergency planning work in the NHS as the NHS role was changing fast.
There it was! The whole marvellous and
magical pattern of training, all done in
just over 3 years thanks to retrospective
recognition of my previous experience.
Overall I just could not believe that such a banquet of riches had been spread out before me…. and the best thing of all was that just as I thought it couldn’t get any better, the next course would be served and it was more delicious than the last. For me, finding this training scheme and the Oxford School of Public Health was life saving.
Part 3: The Blossoming:
I loved every minute of my training and the tools I was given then have proved to be sharp and true for getting the day-job done. I think of the whole training period as being like growing flowers. First the seed of Public Health is planted. It grows and is watered by senior colleagues and the training scheme until the flower buds are ready to burst open. Then comes ‘real work’ and the flowers open fully.
Since then the river of life has kept flowing, taking me through jobs in Milton Keynes, Oxfordshire, Oxford University and into Buckinghamshire…… and who knows where it will lead… maybe it will take me back home one day ……. who knows? But what I do know is that it will be quite a ride on the river of life. Improving the Publics’ Health is the star we steer by, and a training course like ours in Thames Valley is the boat we sail in in our early years. We never forget our debt of gratitude, and later, if we are lucky, we get to train others in our turn and give back a small measure of the riches we have been granted.
Reflecting back on my time as a public health academic trainee in Oxford, I can point to two key aspects of the clinical academic training programme that were crucial to the success of the programme; firstly the support for clinical academic training by OxSPH, the University and the health service partners laid the foundation to pursue my interests in psychiatric epidemiology and mental health services research. Secondly, the integration between clinical and research training that help to shape my thinking around psychiatric epidemiology and the role of service public health in addressing mental health issues.
Post CCT, I leave the public health training programme with fond memories and a doctorate in psychiatric epidemiology. I have decided to pursue a public health research career as a post-doctoral researcher in London not too far from Oxford where I have built up a network of research collaborators and many friends.
My training in public health at Oxford School of Public Health has had significant impact on my life and career. My journey into Public Health from a clinical infectious diseases background began with a light-bulb-in-the-head moment while working as a sole medical doctor in a very resource-poor community in Northern Nigeria. I saw first-hand the difference a population approach to health and health care could make and wanted to know all about it but I don’t think I had enough information to have consciously carved a path to Oxford. It was happenstance that, having just completed a high-intensity MSc in Tropical Medicine and International Health at LSHTM, I was bored out of my mind from a precipitous drop in adrenalin. Taking a walk down the street, I saw a newspaper where higher Public Health specialist training in Oxford was advertised. I thought, ‘why not’? On the memorable day I came to Oxford for the first time for my interview and walked into Old Road Campus, I knew I had made a momentous decision after interviewing successfully. I went on to meet fantastic trainers, teachers and peers over the 5 years of training. On completion of specialist training in November 2009, I took up a consultant post in Berkshire where I worked until March 2013. I now work as Service Director for Public Health in Bristol City Council.
What was it about training in Oxford School of Public Health and being part of its public health service and academic community that so strongly impacted me? I think it is many things but a few deserve specific mention. In my current role, I have a fantastic mix of strategic leadership and a lead on technical aspects of public health (e.g. information/intelligence, health protection, core offer work with CCGs). Working across the breadth of public health and with the complexity of challenges that come with the role requires a certain measure of self-belief. One thing I got in abundance in training was the opportunity to work with senior colleagues who helped instil this quality in me by achieving a perfect balance between independence and necessary guidance in the dispensation of training. This self-directed theme of learning was an evident leitmotif of the Oxford MSc in Global Health Sciences curriculum which combined a measured didactic component with strong independent learning. The quality of the education and training in Oxford was simply fascinating. I will not forget one of my first few weeks studying for the MSc when a dignified elderly gentleman walked into the classroom to teach us Biostatistics. That I left the session having learnt something despite being star-struck was a testimony to how good a teacher Professor Sir David Cox of the famed Cox proportional hazards model was. Such exposure to national and international leaders of thought and pioneers in the field of public health and its basic arts and sciences remains something I reminisce on with great pleasure. Our Tuesday evening masterclasses with public health experts, the diverse training opportunities available for trainees across service and academic public health, the wonderful flexibility of training that allowed a trainee to train to their strengths while identifying and developing their limitations all made training in Oxford School of Public Health an immensely rewarding experience.
What more can I say – it’s now over eight years since I joined the school, but I have maintained both personal and professional relationships with a host of people of the finest personal and professional qualities whom I met in Oxford while in training. In my short but eventful career in public health so far, I have my training in Oxford School of Public Health to thank for the experiences I had in it, the qualities it helped me develop and the competencies I acquired there while making the most of the simple things of life such as building lasting and positive relationships with people.
In many ways I have had a very conventional career path: a medical degree from Cambridge, training in psychiatry, and then the excellent public health training scheme in Oxford. My interest was always in academia and after completing my specialist registrar training, and a MSc and PhD from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, I worked as a senior fellow in health technology assessment at Southampton University. After two years I moved to Warwick University, and after six more years I was promoted to Professor of Public Health. While at Warwick I retained a strong interest in NHS and health policy issues, and worked part-time as clinical director of the NHS website. In 2012 I decided to combine a part-time academic role at Oxford University, with a part-time Consultant Clinical Adviser role at NICE. My area of interest is digital health (sometimes called e-health), examining how to harness digital tools to improve health and health care. Having spent more than fifteen years ploughing a sometimes lonely furrow in this emerging area, it is pleasing to see it now becoming mainstream in both research and policy arenas. I also have a strong interest in television and film and have worked as a medical advisor on various programmes including Downton Abbey, Casualty, 1909, Spanish Flu: The Forgotten Fallen, An Inspector Calls, and SS-GB.
My interest has always been in global public health and disaster response. The Oxford MSc in Global Health Sciences was therefore a great introduction to the public health training scheme for me. The flexibility of the training scheme meant that, as well as undertaking local placements (at a Primary Care Trust, the community engagement team of Oxfordshire County Council, and the local health protection unit), I could work in health protection and public health disaster preparedness at a national level and overseas. My placement with the Extreme Events team and the London chemical hazards team of Public Health England was a ‘National Treasure’ placement. These placements allow trainees from all over the country to undertake approved placements outside of their Deanery. It was good exposure to health protection work and we collaborated with the World Health Organization and the United Nations.
My academic placement involved 3 months at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, working on research and policy for humanitarian response to natural disasters. I also undertook a Thames Valley and Wessex Leadership Academy ‘Improving Global Health through Leadership Development’ fellowship, which involved 6 months as a public health registrar in the Western Cape province of South Africa. It was great to see how other countries do public health, allowing me a different perspective on the problems we face in public health in the UK. Having dedicated support to develop my leadership skills was also a good development opportunity.My final year of the training scheme was spent working in the public health department of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in London. This was where I had long wanted to be, so it was a dream come true to get the placement. Again I gained national and international experience of public health and learnt a lot about epidemiology, politics, advocacy and Ebola! When I finished the training scheme I remained with MSF, as their first ‘public health specialist’, and hope to be here for years to come.