Dr Emma Gale has joined Health and Wellbeing Queensland in 2022 as its first public health registrar trainee after working as part of the state’s COVID-19 public health response. Emma will lead the team developing the first of a series of Queensland Obesity Prevention Action Plans to guide the government and partners in collaborative actions to halt and reverse the trend of overweight and obesity across the state. This will involve overseeing the project plan, including the implementation of scoping, mapping, consultation, and communication activities, leading the monitoring and evaluation process, and contributing to project endorsement and reporting.
Learn more about what drives Emma, what attracted her to a career in public health and why she would like to see a Queensland where the healthy options are the easy ones for all.
What led you to a career in public health?
I worked in the acute hospital setting for a number of years looking after patients experiencing poor quality of life from health issues that were essentially preventable. I would get frustrated and saddened when the diabetic patient who had already lost a foot would continue to smoke and drink litres of soft drink. I eventually realised that what I was seeing was often the result of environment, systemic issues, and inequities.
The inequities became especially obvious when I worked in paediatrics between hospitals in high and low-income areas. It seemed unfair to witness the stark contrast in basic health literacy between postcodes and see children starting life already at a disadvantage, particularly in terms of access to good nutrition. This was through no fault of their parents and guardians who were always trying to do their best. I will never forget meeting three year olds who had never tasted water.
What was also challenging was that there was often no time or scope to address basic things such as healthy weight with patients, parents, and families in the acute hospital setting, with the focus always on the pressing issue such as the asthma or the fever. I realised that I wanted to leave the acute hospital space to move upstream and try to influence some of these system issues, so I enrolled in a Master of Public Health and eventually transitioned into a public health training role.
What are you most proud of during your career to date?
I would say it is working as part of the COVID-19 public health response for the past two years. I started my first public health job in February 2020 and got pitched head-first into a pandemic. I was able to witness the evolution of the pandemic in south-east Queensland from the first cases through to our current phase of living with COVID. It was a steep learning curve and a rapidly changing environment that kept us on our toes but allowed for me to develop public health response skills and take a big picture approach. The most rewarding parts were working with community groups to assist them through managing COVID-19 outbreaks with tailored processes, resources, and communications.
What’s the one big change you’d like to see within our health system/health of Queenslanders?
I think it would be that we create an environment where the healthy options are the easy ones for all, and Queenslanders aren’t facing an uphill battle to lead healthy lives. In this dreamland, healthy food is the easily available choice, there is no bombardment by discretionary food ads and availability, policy and infrastructure are designed with healthy living in mind (not dictated by business or politics), and movement is built into our daily lives as the norm.
In particular, I would like to see discretionary foods and alcohol out of the sports space. We are a sports-crazy nation and children make up a huge number of fans and participants. I find it difficult to fathom that it is still OK for something as positive as sport, from community to the elite level, to be allowed to be associated with fast-food chains or beer brands seeking a health halo (and revenue).
What wicked questions are your pondering at the moment?
It’s hard not to have COVID on the brain these days, and there are a few things I’ve been pondering about the pandemic. More specifically, I wonder what sort of habits and lasting effects will continue in society once the pandemic is declared over. Will people be more mindful of going out in public when they are unwell? Will we have a generation of germophobic hand-washing obsessed children who don’t know how to interact with each other in person? Has the social and emotional development of our children been affected by lockdowns and school closures in a way we will not see until years down the track? Will we reassess our need to constantly commute and travel?
Historically, humans are good at forgetting difficult times and reverting to ‘business as usual’ but I really hope that we do see some positive long-term change because of learnings from the pandemic. For example, it exposed and worsened the inequities between and within countries that urgently need addressing. It also highlighted just how important the human interface with the natural world is and how important it is to acknowledge and respect this relationship.
What are your words of wisdom on balancing work and life?
I spent much of the last two years working intense, erratic, and disruptive hours. Over this time, I lost some of the habits that keep me balanced and wasn’t feeling like myself. So, I believe it is incredibly important to prioritise doing the things that make you feel like you, and this will be different for everyone. I regularly do some sort of sport in the morning (I confess, I am a CrossFit addict), and read a book before going to sleep to switch off (admittedly, sometimes I only make a page or two). The other important thing is to stay connected with family and loved ones even when busy and stressed. They will always make you feel better. Nothing is more therapeutic after a long day than a FaceTime with my five-year-old nephew to listen to the kindergarten lowdown and how annoying his older brothers are…all with only a view up his left nostril.