Local Spotlight: Halton’s Dr Ifeoma Onyia on local public health, her new role as Director, the challenges the borough faces, and more

Welcome to Local Spotlight, a regular feature in Collaborate, our stakeholder newsletter, that shines the light on the amazing public health people, teams, programmes and projects in Cheshire and Merseyside’s nine local areas that are really worth shouting about.

This month, we sat down with Dr Ifeoma Onyia, Interim Director of Public Health for Halton, to learn more about her, how she’s feeling about taking up her new role as Director of Public Health, some of the challenges we could potentially be facing in the public health world, and how she intends to overcome them.

Ifeoma (pronounced ee-for-ma) is a Fellow of the Faculty of Public Health. She originally studied medicine in Nigeria and trained in general practice across Yorkshire and Cheshire and Merseyside, before completing her public health training also in Cheshire and Merseyside. She has worked as a Consultant in Public Health for the NHS in Wirral and Stoke-on-Trent before joining Halton in 2013, leading on Healthcare Public Health, Intelligence and Governance. Ifeoma also has an NIHR funded role to build public health research capacity in Local Authorities.

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Welcome Ifeoma. What first interested you to work in public health?

 I remember when I was in medical school in Nigeria, and I was not sure what area of medicine to specialise in, and then we had this lecture about the John Snow Water Pump, (where the source of an infectious disease having been tracked back to a particular water pump was stopped). It was like magic, I was transfixed, and I just knew that this was going to be the thing that I really, really wanted to do.

In Nigeria you do about 18 months of what’s called community medicine and we used to go off to vaccine sites and rubbish dumps and leprosy hospitals and it was just fascinating, and for me I just could not understand why anyone would spend any time trying to sort out problems such as treating people with malaria when you could actually spend your time trying to stop people getting malaria in first place. More so when treatment was so income dependent and the poor would always lose out on what seemed a health lottery.

So for me, prevention has absolutely been the thing that I was interested in and of course over time I started to understand more about unequal access and the unfairness within the health system, so I suppose that’s what sparked an early interest in health inequalities, so all of my medical career as a junior doctor was about getting to be a consultant in public health, and I did it! 


What interested you most about the role of interim Director of Public Health with Halton Borough Council?

I had been working at Halton Borough Council as a consultant for around seven years and I suppose a bit of it was with the COVID pandemic; I started to think about what else could I do. The pandemic stretched us all and our thoughts and imagination about what we could do in public health, both as a community and as individuals, and I began to think ‘is there anything more?’, ‘do I want at the end of the pandemic to go back to being a consultant or is there something else that I should be thinking about doing?’.

So, in many ways, when the opportunity came along, it wasn’t that I was thinking ‘I want to be a Director of Public Health’, it was certainly that I wanted to do something different and when the opportunity presented itself, it just felt like it was good thing to do. I felt like I had the skillset to do it so it just felt like natural progression for me.


What would you most like to achieve in your new role?

It’s a six-month interim, so I don’t have a lot of time, but I think there’s three key things that I can aim to do.

The first is to make sure that I can support the entire team and keep them feeling stable and supported, the second is getting us through COVID safely and the third is about recovery from the pandemic and doing other things apart from about COVID.

There’s also a massive opportunity for transformation and working together as ‘One Halton’ and making sure that there’s the correct public health input into that.


What has been the proudest moment of your career to date?

I had to really think about this one! Now I look back, I think it was a situation that wasn’t actually linked to my job. About 13 years ago when I had twins, I didn’t really have much support from a breastfeeding perspective, despite there being a strategy in place, and what I did was advocate, as an individual, for change in that hospital to support mothers better.

It ended up resulting in a meeting with the hospital’s Head of Nursing and Chief Midwife and resulted in a really positive change in how mothers were supported with breastfeeding. I was so happy to bring a personal experience, and take my public health expertise, to create real and meaningful change for our residents. I’m really proud that I did that.


In your experience, what are the biggest challenges with public health?

What’s really interesting is that, due to the pandemic, public health has gained quite a lot of kudos and recognition, which is great. But, still, public health can mean many things to many people, so one of our biggest challenges is enabling more people to learn more and understand more about what we do.

We now have this fantastic opportunity, of spending so much time in the limelight, to use this to our advantage and help people understand that we’re about so much more than COVID, we do so much.


What are the biggest public health issues in Halton?

The pandemic is definitely still going to be our biggest ongoing challenges in the area. At the moment, we are seeing a slow rise in cases, because we have all had enough of being indoors, which in itself was causing other public health issues, from mental health to work-related issues; there are a lot of crises out there.

We recently completed a refresh of our Joint Strategic Needs Assessment and looked at some of our key issues and unsurprisingly, we are not seeing a big change from the key issues we identified from a few years ago; things like cancer, cardiovascular disease  (CVD) and respiratory diseases are still our top three killers.

We also have an issue around young people and education, and without getting young people into good education, how can we expect them to get into good jobs, good health, good housing. There’s also an issue around supporting older people with things like mental health, falls, and much more. We are now looking at these issues, overlaying the impact of the pandemic on top of this, and looking at how we can work with our partners to solve these issues.


What are you most passionate about in your work?

Absolutely everything! I think I have public health in my veins at this point. It’s a job that I really, really enjoy. There’s something that’s so exciting about working in public health and having that opportunity to really help peoples’ lives for the better. The ability to really help and support people to get them back on track in all elements of their lives. Our team is up for the best public health team in the LGC awards, and even though we have a really small team, our team has knitted together so well, not just on the COVID response but on the health improvement side also.

There is also something about that wider side of public health, the wider determinants of health; there’s a chance to look at education, health etc. to support people. We have some big exciting developments coming in the area that are going to really improve peoples’ lives and I actually think that right here, right now is the perfect time to be working in public health.


You also have a NIHR funded role to build public health research capacity in Local Authorities. Can you tell us more about that?

It was borne out of an interest I’ve always had for research, and when I came into public health in local authorities, I didn’t feel there were enough opportunities for research, so when I saw an advert for increasing the role of research, I just had to go for it.

It’s still early days, but there’s a lot of opportunity, supported by NIHR, for public health to get more involved in research. In public health, we always say we rely on evidence and make decisions based on needs, so we need to get better at research so we can show proof of concepts and share learning. It’s a unique and amazing opportunity.


What do you enjoy doing most in your spare time?

Being a Director of Public Health means that my spare time has been somewhat curtailed. However, I have a fantastic running group, made up of some really great friends. I also love walking, hanging out with my family, cooking, reading, flash fiction writing, needlework. Quite boring really! Oh, I can’t forget about jigsaws!