Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas

Research Student

Spotlight on our Alumni: SPH graduate Justin Thomas set to redefine ‘Airport Healthcare’

Dual Master of Health Management / Master of International Public Health

Mode of study: International Student, External in Distance Mode

Country: South Africa

Previous Education: Bachelors’ Degree in Emergency Medical Care, University of Johannesburg

Paramedic Justin Thomas secured his Bachelors’ Degree in Emergency Medical Care in 2013 at the University of Johannesburg. He received training in both emergency medical care and in medical rescue and disaster management. In 2016, he began working as an Expat Paramedic in Saudi Arabia, employed into an Airport EMS Service. As an EMS Duty Supervisor, he was responsible for the operational organisation of 5 bases across the airport area and for providing medical oversight for EMS calls on his shift. While working here, Justin fell in love with ‘Airport Healthcare’ and felt he had found his niche.

In 2016, Justin enrolled into the Dual Master of Health Management/Master of International Public Health program at the School of Population Health, UNSW as a distance learning student. In addition to the compulsory coursework, he took elective coursework to help his specialised practice in Airport Healthcare. This included building skills and capacity around the three functions of airport healthcare service: (1) Disaster Management/Medicine (2) Emergency Care Operations, and (3) Travel Medicine and Port Health.

Justin completed his degrees in 2018 and a year later was promoted to the Chief Paramedic Officer’s (CPO) position, responsible for overall management and development of the EMS within the organisation. Having seen the gains of a long-distance program which allowed him to apply academic learnings to his actual workplace, Justin has now started his PhD in Evidence-Based Healthcare at Oxford University’s Centre for Evidence Based Medicine. He continues to work full time as the CPO and is based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

What does your current role entail?

As the CPO, my responsibilities focus on activities related to the full spectrum of health management. These include activities related to strategic development; change management; policy and procedure planning, development and implementation; health systems financing; research, training and continuing professional development; clinical practice, governance and risk management; and where applicable, patient care.

Tell us about your research focus, aim and why it attracts you

Airport Healthcare as a formal discipline doesn't exist, so the current focus of my academic work is to better understand what it entails. The focus of my research is on understanding how formal rules, e.g., legislation, policy and procedure, from the international/national- and organisational-system level interact with informal rules, e.g., learnt behaviours, cultures, values, attitudes, from an individual-system level. In observing the tension between these two sets of rules, I am able to better understand how an Airport Healthcare System is organised and how it performs over time. The research aims to expand the evidence base for Airport Healthcare so that we are better able to understand what are the system factors that affect the way disease is imported or exported. We can use this information to improve the way we make rules so that they are better aligned with the operational reality in the workplace. We really only need to look at the effects that Covid-19 had on the world to understand why there is a need to better equip our global transport systems to respond to their roles in the way disease travels.

Have there been any surprising results?

One of the most surprising aspects of my work is just how specialised and multidisciplinary the work actually is and how underprepared we are as a society to deal with risk that derives from disease that is in transit or that will travel or has travelled. The Covid-19 pandemic is a very good example of this.

But there are other surprising aspects of the work that I was not expecting. Our experience has shown that the most important factor to affect Airport Healthcare is the legal barriers associated with immigration. Airport healthcare has 4 specific characteristics: (1) it is multidisciplinary (2) it deals with mobile populations (3) it deals with persons who have differing legal statuses, and (4) it is delivered across multiple territories. Characteristics 2, 3 & 4 are all affected by the law and how the law shapes access to healthcare at ports of entry.

What attracted you to UNSW’s School of Population Health and what did you gain from it?

In the beginning, I liked that I could study two masters degrees simultaneously and through distance learning. I enjoyed the efficiency of this, and it made sense because they cost the same as if I were to only study one masters’ degree.

But as a student, the school’s value really shone. I loved the system and the way UNSW’s SPH does “education”. The systems design allows for easy integration of the processes involved in learning, studying, and working. The online interface is easy to navigate which allows you to easily access learning material. The learning material, including lectures are downloadable which is incredibly convenient and allowed for me as a student to easily plan my academic experience up front. I felt like I had full control over my learning experience and was able to flexibly adjust it so that it integrated into other aspects of my life. Being able to balance work, life and studying easily is extremely important to me and the systems at UNSW’s SPH perfectly allowed for this to happen.

I loved how accessible, supportive and flexible everything was. I mean this in very real and practical ways. The university services and faculty are easily accessed through multiple different pathways which is really helpful.

The flexibility and supportive culture of the course, services, and faculty were the biggest contribution to my success at UNSW and overall well-being as a student. For example, as an international student, I paid tuition fees, which I couldn’t afford to pay up front. The finance department and the lady that I worked with in terms of my tuition were beyond helpful and understanding. Throughout the 2 years, I paid my fees on a monthly basis because I couldn't afford to pay upfront. At the end of every term, I would not have paid the fees in full and I would be contacted by the Finance Department. Every term we would develop a finance arrangement that would allow me to pay up the outstanding fees over the course of three months. During these experiences, I was only ever treated with kindness and dignity. The lady I worked with and her manager were instrumental in me being able to afford and sustainably finance my studies in a way that didn't leave me in debt and contributed to a less stressful studying experience. These supportive systems are directly related to me being able to graduate.

There were many instances where I was given permission by course convenors to change the assignment topics because I was interested in investigating the coursework from an angle that was not directly approachable through the topics provided. I enjoyed how many of the courses in the Master of Health Management program would have assignment topics related to your workplace. This provided the opportunity to practically apply the course material in a real world setting and made the work relevant and personalised to me and my needs as a health manager.

I found the feedback on the assignments were thoughtful and meaningful and where you had questions or wanted to follow up on something, you were always able to. The course convenors gave helpful and relevant advice on how you could improve your work as a student. I also found the advice to be broadly relevant to improving skills as a researcher/academic and a working professional. For example, feedback on writing and building arguments, how to use scientific evidence to develop arguments, ideas, influence change, etc. These are a skillset that are broadly applicable to every setting.

Having said this, I am a very engaged student and actively participate in my learning experience. Students who are looking to have a similar experience should be mindful of this - actively take responsibility for your learning process. Do not be a helpless victim of the system, instead view yourself as an active participant in a partnership between you as the student, the university as an institution, and the faculty as resources.

What inspires you in your work and what are your future goals?

I love my job. I feel a lot like Goldilocks, having found a niche for me that is "just right” in every way that is important to me. I love that it is novel and interesting. I feel like I have the space to create something that is new, meaningful and exciting to me. I love the “discovery” aspect of my work - I love the feeling that I get when I discover something new or discover a problem or aspect of my work using a different approach.

For now, my focus is on smashing my DPhil and developing myself as a researcher, educator and health manager. The DPhil project is closely integrated with my work, so I am fortunate that as I progress through the research, I am simultaneously building industry experience as well. For now, that is my focus.

What would you say to those considering a career in research/public health?

My advice is to identify a broad set of generally applicable skills that are interesting to you personally and that can be applied in the different settings which you find interesting personally. It's important to have a general understanding of what you want to achieve going into it and how it will progress or add benefit to your existing career path.

Public health and research are not career choices, I view them as tools that provide specific skill sets that can be used to understand and address problems affecting various groups of people. As an industry, public health and research are full of professionals from very diverse backgrounds who use them as a lens through which a specific problem can be viewed. That makes their application broadly relevant to multiple different settings. In truth, if you approach public health and research from the view that it’s a toolbox with specific skillsets aimed at solving different types of problems that affect different types of people, there is no limit to what you can do with Public health or research.

It will provide you with the opportunity to continually reinvent yourself and explore different aspects of life in multiple different settings.