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Global health experience

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“A good traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving” [Lao Tzu]

A few weeks ago, I was asked to give a talk to a group of clinical fellows undertaking work placements at various national organisations including Public Health England.

My talk was part of a training day devoted to their learning about different aspects of life and work at PHE, and other speakers on the agenda included the chief executive and a number of fellow directors.

As I would normally do in preparation for such a session I asked the organiser, in advance, about the audience and what would be most helpful for them to hear.

The fellows were qualified doctors, she advised, at various early stages in their medical careers, all with an interest in public health, and they’d be keen to hear about my personal journey as much as my area of work expertise – global public health.

Fair enough- so I kicked off my talk with “They wouldn’t let me do French A-level because it didn’t fit in with the curriculum”. That seemed to catch people’s attention and I went on to explain how I was obliged by the school, begrudgingly, to switch the language for a third science, though I kept up my passion for English literature and philosophy through non-specialist classes and self-directed learning.

Maths, biology and chemistry led naturally to medical school, but as soon as my enjoyable six years were up I went to Cambridge to do a philosophy Masters degree. In turn, and in some time, this resulted in a doctorate in the history and philosophy of public health, engendering an academic career that has combined well, over the years, with specialising in both general practice and public health.

Five years as Director of Public Health for Camden represented the best job I’d ever had, before moving to national and international roles at the Health Protection Agency and now Public Health England.

It felt like I still had the attention of the fellows, more or less, so I moved into the middle section of the talk and spoke about PHE’s expanding portfolio of global public health work: our DfID-funded programmes in Sierra Leone and Pakistan; the new Rapid Support Team, set up by the Prime Minister to get boots on the ground during the next Ebola outbreak in days rather than months; our ODA grant to strengthen public health systems in the poorest parts of the world; plans for a PHE Global Health Foundation; China, Mexico, India ...

Lunch arrived: never good in the middle of a talk. Attention wavered as crockery clinked at the back of the room and the smells of the vegetarian platter wafted over. Had I lost them before I got to my own dessert?

The last two slides focused on what I have come to understand – through reading, listening, training, coaching and more – about psychological functioning and how this impacts on how we live and enjoy our lives, including our performance and effectiveness at work.

I described the two psychological lifestyles of the ‘sailboat’ and the ‘motorboat’, the difference between involvement and investment, and what it means to have a commitment to lifelong learning. Heads turned back, stomach juices were ignored, so I touched on how to thrive in uncertainty and the importance of trust. Hands flew up. Sandwiches were forgotten.

The seed of an idea was sown in my mind.

This new monthly blog has dual purposes. In each posting, I intend to first bring to people’s attention to a particular issue, or happening, in PHE’s global public health work – as informatively and helpfully as possible.

Then, I plan to use that issue as a lens to explore how we experience our lives – and the opportunities that continually exist to do so as joyfully and productively as possible. At times, the direction may seem unclear but, like the traveller with no fixed plans, the unexpectedness of the journey will hopefully prove worthwhile.

Read Anthony's personal blog here: 

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