Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself and your work pre-COVID-19?
I am Professor of Dietetics – a teaching and research academic working in the Faculty of Science and located in the Charles Perkins Centre. I normally come into campus five days per week. I have a busy load lecturing to coursework students but also supervising six PhDs and 6 to 10 Masters projects each semester. My days are filled with face-to-face meetings with research students, post-docs and with colleagues throughout Charles Perkins on collaborative projects
In five words or less, what was your reaction when you heard of the restrictions put in place?
Good, we must do this!
Why – well I am a Professor of Dietetics -a health professional and my research is in Public Health – I remember the lectures during my MPHil on the epidemic curve etc and knew it was imperative we do this for the good of all staff and students. I take on a challenge and knew we could make remote teaching and research work somehow and even some placement experiences using simulation.
How did you overcome the challenges of COVID-19?
We soon started teaching online and the staff delivering the nutrition and dietetics programme met via Zoom first thing Monday morning and then again mid-week while we worked this thing out together. I found I needed to spend a lot more time communicating with other health academics and practitioners because we had students in hospital and public health settings that temporarily were stopped and travel to country placements ceased. This was challenging to provide the experiential learning needed to pass accreditation but one of my staff developed a ‘pop-up’ simulation clinic.
Then I had to think about the research students! Luckily they were mostly in a good place having finished data collection on the PhD projects and for another we were able to switch to a systematic review while we navigated the ethics of conducting research via Zoom. I gathered the whole group of students into regular meetings so they could support each other and suggested they continue a zoom coffee morning or lunch as they were all used to meeting for lunch daily.
Did you find many positive outcomes?
On a personal note I did because I talked to my husband and son more during lockdown while having lunch together. While I worked seven days per week my “absence” seemed less to them than usual. I think it cemented our team of academics more closely as we all helped each other. My admiration for my colleagues working in public health and hospitals for NSW Health grew stronger by the minute. They all had to pitch in with the COVID response in the early stages. They were involved in different roles ranging from contact tracing, to organising hospital visitor schedules, to managing the “hospitals” in the quarantine hotels. I have also pitched in to help them move forward with teledietetics. With colleagues we wrote the Position paper for Dietitians Australia on telehealth.
What surprised you about your work during the pandemic?
How busy I was working seven days per week and really long days – I don’t think I can afford to waste as many hours in travel as I move forward. It is harder managing the research students and takes much longer this way as does a tutorial but lectures are OK. Usually the students interact and help each other but that is not really happening under Zoom. The kindness of other colleagues working in health has been overwhelming and wonderful to feel part of this dedicated community.
If you had to build a health service from scratch knowing what you know now, what would that look like?
It is wonderful the health insurers have added telehealth to our claimable benefits and will do so permanently. We hope the Federal government does so, and we want the learnings from COVID to be captured to ensure all aspects of telehealth (ie from telephones, video conferencing, to apps and wearables) become a part of healthcare. Digital health is patient-centric and puts their needs first, providing equity for those in rural and underserved areas to access service. We just need the appropriate infrastructure and training of health professionals.
Is there anything that you would like to add?
Sometimes it takes a ‘disruptor’ like this to change the world and the COVID experience should be used to change things in a positive way for healthcare and put preventive health investment on the radar. Let’s put some more money into digital health research and training We need to fund preventive health in communicable and non-communicable disease. I am most impressed by the amazing job NSW Health has done in managing the pandemic!
Connect with Margaret:
A very big thank you to Margaret for all of her time!