Considering a career in public health? Dr Yasmin Akram gives us a glimpse of what it is like.
• Working 9-5
• Constant brain stimulation
• Flexibility to develop own interests
• Managing my own time
• Somewhat unstructured timetable
• Outcomes of the work often not obviously visible
• Reading pages of policies and procedures
“Public health, eh?” – this is generally the response I get from medic friends when I tell them which placement I’m doing. “So you’re going to sit and watch your bottom grow for four months?” one quipped. “Actually no,” I tell him. “I’ll be sorting out the health of the nation.”
My days usually start by waking at 8am; today is no exception. I dress sufficiently smart enough to be taken seriously. I jump onto the commuter train at 8.36am (the surgical ward round would be done and dusted by now). Stepping off in the city centre I head towards the fancy government offices, popping into a neat little coffee shop for a croissant on the way.
The day starts with the weekly departmental meeting; thankfully now I’ve been here a few weeks, I understand what seemed like gobbledegook language a few weeks ago. Albeit in a semi-delayed manner, I can now follow talk of LARS , strategic needs assessments, operational planning and health equity. This offers the opportunity to discuss my ongoing cases with my team. I watch the current chair like a hawk so I don’t make a fool of myself next week when I will be chairing the meeting in the presence of the director of public health.
After the meeting it’s straight to work. I deal with an outbreak of campylobacter at a local restaurant – a restaurant that I often frequent. Needless to say I won’t be dining there again in a hurry. I’m firmly rooted to my chair for the next few hours, as legionnella and hepatitis A cases and a TB outbreak arrive in overlapping succession.
"In my own small way public health allows me to raise awareness about health issues locally"
On my lunch break, I pop into the museum a few minutes away, drawn in by the picture of ‘the Afghan girl’. The photographs are fantastic – one in particular catches my attention so vividly that I find it hard to move on, and I’m not the only one. It is a picture of a boy no more than four or five wearing a dog-eared t-shirt, which once supported a picture of Spiderman; tears are streaming down his face and in his tiny left hand is a gun, which is pointed to his own temple.
In my own small way public health allows me to raise awareness about health issues locally, but Steve McCurry has done a credit to humanity by raising awareness of even deeper issues across the globe. I take one last look and head back to the office, picking up a freshly-baked baguette on the way. I have much to be thankful for.
When I return it is time to chase up the ethics committee approval of my audit. The project is either a labour of love or hatred, I haven’t quite decided yet – extensive and complicated, yet interesting and with publication potential. While I’m trawling through pages of ethical guidelines, one of the CCDCs (consultants in communicable diseases and control) approaches me. She is heading to a television studio to give health protection advice to an Asian television channel and asks if I would like to come and watch. Hell yeah! I think. “Yes, please” I say.
In the car she suggests that instead of watching, maybe I’d like to join in. What? Join in? I don’t know what I’m doing but it’s too good an opportunity to miss. I agree, but mentally kick myself for my wardrobe indiscretions and choosing an extra five minutes of sleep instead of applying make-up.
Somehow I get through it – politician-style – answering the questions I want them to ask, rather than the ones they actually ask. I figure it’s a good thing that no-one will be watching a live show in the middle of the day, well, at least until I find out that my mother seems to have used up her phone minutes allowance calling aunties, whose names I can’t remember, to tell them when the repeat will be showing.
Back to the office I go and back to ‘real’ work. The message light is blinking annoyingly on my extension and my list of due actions on the health protection account is growing. As with any clinical situation, I prioritise – the nursery outbreak needs to be dealt with before the standalone case with no vulnerable contacts.
I look up at the clock; it reads 5pm – half the office is heading out of the door. I leave at 5.25pm, by choice rather than necessity. There is something I want to finish, and besides, I feel bad about my slightly protracted lunch break and frequent email checks.
After work, I meet a friend for a spot of shopping, although given the fact that my job is unbanded it probably isn’t a great idea to do this too frequently. I could get used to this lifestyle, I think to myself. It’s a shame it’s over in a couple of months – although I do wonder if the novelty will have worn off by then.
A good day’s work and socialising done, I head home. “So exactly where do you see your patients?” my father asks. “I don’t,” I smile. “My work is about the bigger picture, and I certainly do not miss the shrill of my bleep.”
At the time of writing, Dr Akram was a specialty registrar in public health in the Mersey Deanery.