By Matyas Jakab
Our interview this month is with Dr. Arpana Verma, who in addition to being a Senior Clinical Lecturer and Hon. Consultant in Public Health heads more than a dozen projects, ranging from local to international in scope. She tells us about the details and the perks of a career in public health, as well as providing insights into current themes in the field. We thank Dr. Verma for accepting to be interviewed and are confident that her contribution will widen the horizon of current medical students.
1. Dr. Verma, the first thing would be for you to tell us a bit about what career path brought you to where you are now.
After I left University I did my house jobs at Hope hospital and from that I went into Respiratory Medicine at Wythenshawe and that led me into a staff grade post in adult cystic fibrosis, which was where I did my PhD. Whilst collecting data for the PhD I really started looking at epidemiology as one of the key things I was interested in from the point of view of looking at populations and how we can improve individuals’ health and wellbeing using the evidence base. Rose, one of my public health (PH) heroes, describes PH physicians as needing to have ‘clear minds and dirty hands’ i.e. asking the right question, using the best methodology to answer that question and then disseminating it to the right audiences.
2. What is your current position? What do you do now?
I’m senior lecturer in PH and I am also consultant in PH at Salford Royal Foundation Trust, previously at NHS Bury. As of this month, I’ve been doing this job for 5 years.
3. And as a PH consultant what sort of tasks and challenges do you face and how is PH as a specialty different from other specialties?
PH is a clinical specialty and I think some people may not appreciate that. Even though we’re not looking at investigating an individual, what we’re using is our medical training to understand how to think through problems at a population level, whether that’s looking at epidemiology (the studies that you’ll read about in medical journals) all the way to analysing and interpreting data and critically appraising the evidence. In my previous role, when I was working at NHS Bury, I was commissioning sexual health services, cancer services, looking at infection prevention and control issues, we were increasing the uptake of vaccines and immunisations & screening programmes. We looked at the whole package, so we would work with hospital doctors, GPs, health care professionals across the board together with communities. We organise international conferences and have lots of research grants. We are heavily involved in teaching the next generation of PH professionals from undergraduates to PhD students and consultants in PH. Why not get a taste for PH by doing one of our PEPs, project options or intercalated degrees? We have had 10 years of medical students on our masters in global PH and our brand new BSc coming in 2015.
4. Could you give an outline of a normal week for a PH consultant?
So, at the moment, because my role is research, teaching as well as PH, my typical week is mostly based around the 18 different research projects that we have here in the department. I’m also the lead for undergraduate teaching within our institutes, and we have been doing a lot of teaching on the medical undergraduate programme, in addition to offering the PEPs and the project options. A typical week is research and teaching, and when I was working in the primary care trust and local authority, I’d actually have half my week there, where I would be doing data analysis and interpretation of the evidence base to commission effective services. I’d be running everything from focus groups through to trying to do large scale programmes, looking at increasing uptake to screening programmes and primary prevention.
5. Oh, this is a good one. What’s your favourite aspect of the job?
I have a fantastic team and I am never bored. PH is a global specialty. Some days I am talking to somebody from the WHO about a global health issue and then I could be talking to one of our local researchers who is doing something very specific in a community in Manchester. Teaching is a real favourite aspect of my job. Seeing the look on people’s faces when they finally understand epidemiology is fantastic! Being able to present your work is crucial so I do a lot of travelling where I’m able to present my research and I’ve been fortunate enough to be asked to speak at different events for WHO or the UN which has led to lots of different collaborations and really exciting developments in our research and teaching.
6. What could a student do to gear him/herself towards PH and get some extra points for the time when they need to apply?
We hope that what medical students are able to do is come to some of the PH teaching events and that ranges from lectures all the way through to our Year 4 study days, the PEPs and the project options, and also we have a fantastic opportunity for people who are interested to intercalate to do the Masters in PH and our new BSc. And a key thing for both the PEPs, the project options and definitely the Masters is to get you exposure to PH, but also a publication for your FPAS application and also some experience of presenting your work at our annual Festival of Public Health. We have had professors, Knights of the realm and the local community speak. Every year there are prizes for medical students. This year we had the wicked problems presented by key leading PH professors but also several medical students.
7. I’m sure all of our readers would be interested in getting published. I know you’re involved in a lot of local, national and international efforts. What would you say are the main challenges for PH at home and from a global perspective at the moment?
I think there’s not that much of a difference…so for the first time in August, the OECD have said how important it is to look at data from within countries, because the variation within a country is actually bigger than the variation between countries. So why should somebody in Manchester today, depending on their socioeconomic background have a difference in life expectancy that equates to the difference we see between the high income countries and low income countries. Another one of my PH heroes, Prof Sir Michael Marmot says, ‘Governments found billions to bail out the banks, why do they not find the money to end poverty and reduce inequalities’.
8. As a last question, if you could give one piece of advice to medical students, what would it be?
My biggest piece of advice is to enjoy your time at university. I think that the opportunities for you as a medical student are so vast. This medical school is really good at providing opportunities for medical students to really explore the vastness of the medical specialties. Maximise on all the opportunities that will be coming your way and think about where you will want to be in terms of your own career, and think of all the options. I never thought I would be a PH doctor when I was your age. All the choice we have is amazing, trust yourself that you know what you’re doing is right and take lots of advice, because there is a phenomenal amount of support for you at each stage of your career and access it and use it and make use of the people that you trust to help you on your journey and it will be a fantastic journey. As a doctor we are so privileged to be allowed into the most private parts of people’s lives, we can be their advocates, be the voice for those without one and actually make a difference. Not many people can say that! Good luck in all your endeavours.