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‘A shift to prevention? It has to be now’: Dr Olwen Williams interviews Dr Tracey Cooper

Royal College of Physicians launches latest in series of video podcasts with female senior health leaders in Wales.

The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) has launched the latest video podcast in its ‘In conversation with…’ series of interviews. Hosted by former RCP vice president for Wales Dr Olwen Williams, the podcast delves into the people behind the system: those who influence and shape healthcare policy in Wales.

In the latest episode, Dr Williams meets Dr Tracey Cooper, chief executive of Public Health Wales (PHW), who tells us about her journey from qualifying as a doctor in 1990 to leading the Health Information and Quality Authority in Ireland before joining PHW in 2014.

‘It wasn’t planned, let’s put it that way,’ Dr Cooper says. ‘Emergency medicine was my background. I then became a medical director/director of clinical services for East Midlands Ambulance Trust in England and after that, I left clinical medicine to work nationally as part of the NHS Modernisation Agency in the Department of Health in London.’ 

Tackling health inequalities is a key theme during the interview, and Dr Cooper flags the need for a life course, cross-government approach. ‘It’s not just COVID. There’s the cost-of-living crisis and climate change contributing to our public health challenges. In 2021, we published the Welsh Health Equity Status Report, which looks at the essential conditions for health: health services, income security, social protection, living conditions, social and human capital, employment and working conditions. If ever there was a time for us to shift to prevention, it has to be now,’ Dr Cooper argues.

The two doctors discuss clinical leadership. ‘Once a medic, always a medic,’ Dr Cooper adds. During the interview, they agree that it’s important to find the balance and always remember where your passion lies, even if you leave clinical practice to move into senior management. This leads them to discuss how clinicians, including doctors working in acute medicine, can support prevention and public health messaging, especially in a post-pandemic world.

‘As clinicians, we need to make every contact count. The third sector is key. For example, when we see patients with financial worries, do we know how to signpost them to Citizen’s Advice? Are we signposting to stop smoking services, or exercise referral schemes? What about social prescribing? Every clinician should be asking themselves, what’s my role here?’ 

Later in the conversation, Dr Cooper highlights the importance of whole system care pathways that are focused on the prevention of ill health. ‘How do we best serve our population? By understanding how people want to interact with us,’ she explains. ‘We need to work collaboratively across the system to support people to live healthier lives.’

Discussing the pandemic, Dr Cooper has nothing but praise for her colleagues: ‘I realised very quickly there was a phenomenal, unrelenting commitment and passion among staff working in the public sector.’ Among other lessons learned, she highlights the need to clarify roles and responsibilities during a crisis, the importance of high-quality data collection and analysis, and the difficulties of communicating a Wales-focused message to the public in the context of a UK-wide media.

Finally, Dr Cooper ends by disclosing her guilty pleasure during lockdown: a treadmill at home. ‘It's amazing how many kilometres you can walk in back-to-back Teams meetings. I loved it. That’s a bit naff, isn’t it?!’ she laughs.

Hosted on the RCP’s streaming service, RCP Player, the full interview is available now.

Follow @olwenolwen and @tcooper321 on Twitter.

Read the Public Health Wales long term strategy for 2023–35.