Public Health: Dr. Albert Khoa Dang Ho

Frustrated by the largely preventable problems he saw working as a General Practitioner, Albert Khoa Dang Ho embarked upon a Masters of Public Health.

What led you to study at the University of Melbourne?

I studied medicine at the University of Melbourne from 2000-2005 and I enjoyed my experiences.

I wanted to do a Masters of Pubic Health (MPH) that involved face-to-face teaching, and also wanted to stay in Melbourne to help care for family. It's also easy for me to get to UoM by public transport (and I could even walk to uni in an hour if the weather held up).

What are your strongest memories of your time at the University of Melbourne?

My strongest memories of UoM are the many friendships that I made and have maintained with people from many different cultural and professional backgrounds. I feel that I learned just as much outside of the classroom/lecture theatre from informal discussions (which is not a criticism of the classroom/lecture theatre experience!).

What goals did you set yourself when you finished University and have you stuck to that plan?

I finished my MPH at the end of 2016. I aim to get involved with health promotion/systems/policy regarding refugee and migrant health, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health. I will keep in touch with the contacts I have made during my MPH, and focus on public health in more detail after I complete my General Practice exams in May 2017. Ask me later this year whether or not I have stuck to this plan...

What/who motivated you at University?

Fellow students, tutors and lecturers all motivated me in different ways, as I learned about many different examples of how health promotion/systems/policy can have a positive (and negative) impact on population health. In particular, hearing from guest lecturers, and from fellow students with a broad range of experiences, gave me insight into real world challenges, and opportunities in population health.

What motivates you now?

I am motivated by keeping up to date with issues and projects through various online forums such as the Melbourne Uni MPH Students Facebook page. I am also motivated by listening to family, friends and patients I see in general practice, about the challenges they face and overcome every day.

What advice do you have for current students?

Don't be shy about asking questions of your tutors and lecturers, but keep in mind that the more specific the question you have and the more you have thought about your question, then generally the tutor or lecturer will be better able to guide you in the right direction. Tutors and lecturers can be great sources of advice and guidance for future academic and professional pursuits.

Also, don't be shy to chat to your fellow students. A lot of fellow students will be facing the same challenges as you, and you may find you learn as much from each other as you do from classes.

For local students, offering  to help students from outside of Melbourne settle into the city is a great way to meet people from different backgrounds with different perspectives, and potentially a great way to make contacts if you ever plan to travel in the future...

What books, texts, or thinkers inspire you in your profession?

1. If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!, by Sheldon Kopp: I think it means that if one sees the answer to one's problems and suffering from outside of oneself, then that is not the true answer, for the true answer to one's problems and suffering will come from within oneself

2. As a GP, I try to help people to help themselves, and therefore take ownership of their problems and the solutions to their problems. For my future role in public health, I will have a similar focus. When I am dealing with 'challenging' or 'difficult' people, I try to reflect on the thoughts of Stoic thinkers and Taoist thinkers.

Broadly speaking, I try to: 

  • Slow down and breathe
  • Be mindful that the person I perceive as being 'challenging' or 'difficult' may be upset with the situation and taking their frustrations out on me (or that I may be frustrated with the situation and directing my frustrations to the person who i perceive as 'difficult'/'challenging') so as not to take anything personally (or to get personal with the person I perceive as 'difficult'/'challenging').
  • Be mindful that all humans have the potential for 'good' and 'bad', and that I too have the potential to be 'difficult'/'challenging' myself when I am upset/scared/desperate/ignorant. This may help me see things from their perspective.

3. Why Can't I, by Simon Phillips - https://simonphillips.bandcamp.com/track/why-cant-i

"There are birds that swim, fish that walk, and little tiny foxes that fly... and if they're all doing impossible things, then I ask you: why can't I?"

What drew you to your area of expertise and what do you love about it?

I was drawn to do an MPH because working as a doctor I found it frustrating to see so many people presenting with largely preventable conditions, and also to see many well-intentioned people working in (or influencing) health promotion, policy and systems who seemed to be out of touch with what it was like to actually work in the field of health in the real world. I love the collaborative, interdisciplinary aspects of public health, because I love hearing new, different and challenging perspectives on how to approach complex problems.

What is good health to you?

After volunteering with the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service as a medical student, working as a GP on Groote Eylandt in the Northern Territory, and doing many interdisciplinary MPH subjects including Indigenous Health and History, Indigenous Health from Data to Practice, Environmental Challenges and Global Health, and Health Promotion, my concept of health and well-being includes the interconnected relationship of the biological, psychological, social and cultural health and well-being of individuals, communities, and the environment.

As a GP, I have a special interest in mental and emotional health and well-being. As a medical student, for my research year I looked at the stigma associated with mental illness in the Vietnamese community in Melbourne. For my Professional Practice Unit (PPU) of my MPH I looked at factors affecting access to mental health services for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CaLD) people in Shepparton. 

I think mental health has nothing to do with being strong or weak, but is rather an issue of balance. I think of mental health like a pot plant. If the pot plant faces the same way all the time (if we focus too much on one aspect of our life, eg. work), it can grow really tall and strong, but it will tip over as it constantly reaches towards the sun. But if we rotate the pot plant regularly (lead a balanced life by remembering to eat, drink and sleep well, exercise, relax, have creative outlets, stay connected with family, friends, community, culture and nature), then it won't tip over as easily. 

I think it's important to remember that a lot of the qualities that predispose people to mental ill health, can be a strength when one's life is in balance. For example people prone to depression can be very compassionate, and deep thinkers, while people prone to anxiety can be very thorough and meticulous.

As part of living a balanced life, I think it is important to experience and acknowledge the sadness that we feel in our lives (like in the movie 'Inside Out'). I also want to believe that laughter truly is the best medicine (though patients don't seem to appreciate it when you laugh at their problems - old med school joke).

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

In 2013, during my MPH I was fortunate to do the subject of Indigenous Health and History with Justin Mohamed as a fellow 'student' (he knew more than all of us, but was doing the course to see if he would recommend it to others). At the time he was the Chairperson of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), and he is now the CEO of Reconciliation Australia. I asked if he had any advice for someone who wanted to try to help improve the state of health of Indigenous Australians. He said that the non-Indigenous people who did well in Indigenous health were the people who came with the spirit of mutual learning. They appreciated that non-Indigenous people could learn from Indigenous people and vice versa. 

I think this is an important lesson, not only for people wanting to work in Indigenous health, but for anyone wanting to help in any public health (and general practice) situation. I think there are many well-intentioned, 'well-educated' people who go in thinking that they are experts in a field, but who don't respect that the people they are trying to help also have their own expertise and knowledge, and must play a central role in finding and owning the solutions to the challenges that they face.

Also, through medical school (and even now), my closest friends who weren't afraid to put me in my place always told me I was too quick to give advice. So now I make a conscious effort to listen without judging, to listen with the purpose of being there for the person and helping them feel acknowledged, rather than for the purpose of trying to solve their problems for them. I still have a lot of room for improvement.

What do people thank you for most often?

Listening.