16 November 2020
Janice Burton is Professional Leader, Public Health Promotion, Southern District Health Board
“I began my career as a teacher in a girls’ secondary school. In the early ‘80s there were a number of girls who were the first university graduates in their family; it was so exciting to see how proud these families were of their girls! Then it became clear to me there were equally capable girls who would never have these opportunities due to socio-economic disadvantage.
A friend working in health promotion asked me to facilitate workshops for parents of children attending health camps, to encourage changes in the home. I worked with one of the nurses in that area and my eyes were opened. I remember one woman in particular. She said, ‘my problem feeding my family is I can’t read, so I have to know what to do; it’s hard for me when they change the packaging’. I thought, wow, there are barriers we can’t imagine, so I was drawn more into public health.
I worked for the Cancer Society as the health promotion coordinator and manager of the Southland Centre and became the Cancer Society representative of Agencies for Nutrition Action as it was then, and then chair. Then a role came up with the Southern District Health Board and I thought it would be good to work with a wider selection of colleagues. That’s my route in to public health.
I work in the policy, strategy and support team and I support health promoters in the service. I provide professional leadership and workforce development.
I think the thing that encourages me is we now have government priorities over improving heath and reducing poverty, reducing problems with obesity – due lack of activity and problematic food environments.
This government is focused on children. If we take a systems approach, and implement restrictions on marketing for children for example, that could be really powerful. Where we are now with the focus on profit-making large companies, there is no regulation. Over- processed products can be produced cheaply, and they are often the loss leaders for supermarkets. When people are time and money poor, they go with what will fill their families up, what’s familiar. If we’re going to shift that to healthier food, we’re going to need some regulations around marketing, and all the things people have been advocating for, such as sugary drink taxes, banning advertising of unhealthy foods to children and families.
I was involved with pushing for Smokefree environments – remember, it started with workplaces, then extended into bars and other environments. After over ten years of advocating, we now have a Smokefree CBD in Invercargill. We need to take those steps within nutrition. If we’re going to get change at a population level, we have to do it by policy in the first instance, rather than person by person.
At the moment, with public health being at forefront of Covid responses, public health is a good space to be in. To be a successful health promoter you need a myriad of skills, so I encourage you to identify your skills and then work with people who have different strengths so you can more effectively approach a problem. You have people who are really good at strategy and people who are really good at relationships – if you have those people working together on projects it can really be effective.”