Dr Sonia Allan. Photo: Chris Stacey.
Dr Sonia Allan. Photo: Chris Stacey.

What defines a healthy population?

Dr Sonia Allan is Head of the Department of Health Systems and Populations in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences. Sonia was recently appointed by the Minister for Health in South Australia to review the changes to the Assisted Reproductive Treatment Act 1988 (SA).

We asked Sonia a number of questions about her professional background and expertise, and the opportunities and challenges for health that lie ahead.

What would be an ‘elevator pitch’ for your professional background and expertise?
I have a multi-disciplinary background in psychology, law and public health. I have worked in public and private health and legal sectors, as well as having been an academic for some years now. Broadly my expertise is in health law with a focus on how the law can affect health in positive and negative ways. I am also interested in when and how we should regulate new health and bio-technologies that raise ethical, social and/or human rights issues.

In this regard I have done much work in the area of assisted reproduction, including having conducted research into the legal feasibility of retrospective release of information to all donor conceived people about their donors, and advocating for the contact veto/preference system which has just been adopted in Victoria – a world first. I am currently leading the review of the South Australian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Act, having been appointed by the Minister of Health as an independent consultant.

Alongside all of this, I also have qualifications in education, and higher education teaching.

What lead you to your chosen career path?
Having worked in a variety of settings, I became a health law academic because it was challenging, intellectually stimulating, and placed me in a position that I felt I could effect positive change. I have done this through independent research, consultation, advocacy, public speaking, advising and making submissions to government, education, and more.

My career path has thus enabled me to bring together many of my interests, and reflects my desire to help others. It also reflects my belief that with good health and good education we can do so many things, and allows me to contribute to this in some way. Moving into the role I now have was really exciting as I saw the opportunity to bring my multi-disciplinary work and study together, to continue my research related to health law, and also to build something new educationally that can reach people from a variety of disciplines, and train them in public health. It’s exciting to think that they then may also impact upon health in a positive way, in whatever field they ultimately work in.

What attracted you to Macquarie?
I came to Macquarie initially having moved to Sydney for family reasons. I was immediately attracted to the presence of the hospital on campus, and made links with the then Australian School of Advanced Medicine, teaching into their professional practice and ethics program. When the opportunity arose to lead the new Department of Health Systems and Populations, I was really excited. I felt like I could be part of something innovative and new, and that the role would bring together all of my years of study, as well as my skills and experience. I was really attracted to the vision for the Macquarie University Health Sciences Centre, and what is being built in terms of a major health enterprise.

What do you see as the opportunities and challenges for health in the next five to 10 years?
We live in an age of technology and innovation. With this brings exciting discoveries, and new challenges. We will continue to have to consider the ethical, legal and social issues that arise alongside new health technologies and in collaboration with people from a variety of disciplines and the community. There is also opportunity to think and act more broadly, in a multi-disciplinary way, on how to prevent disease, improve quality of life, and achieve the best possible physical and mental health and well-being for all people throughout their life. The challenge in this regard is to find the right balance between focusing upon treating illness or disease, and preventing it in the first place.

We talk a lot about ‘patient-centred care’; perhaps we should also be talking more about ‘healthy people centred practices and societies’. Following on from this, we must continue to find ways to address the social determinants of health that exist locally, nationally, and globally.

A significant challenge to health and well-being of all people continues to be the conditions in which they are born, grow, work, live, and age, and the wider set of forces and systems shaping the conditions of their daily life.

The opportunity is therefore to implement broader social, environmental, economic, political, legal, and systems solutions that may create better living conditions for all people, and in turn better health. The above is and will continue to be particularly important in the age of ‘lifestyle diseases’, ageing populations, and globalisation.