Public health leader steps down as director

After 31 years as the state’s first area public health unit (PHU) director, Professor Mark Ferson has resigned his role leading SESLHD’s PHU, retaining a part-time role as a senior staff specialist.

With an extensive history in public health policy and a role in NSW Health’s creation of PHUs, Mark’s change in positions will allow for increased focus on his specialist and professorial roles – and a little more time for life pursuits like the community choir and dancing lessons with his wife.

Originally a paediatrician with an interest in infectious diseases, Mark also studied microbiology and expanded his expertise in public health, in his earlier years investigating immunisation and infectious diseases in childcare centres.

Since 1991, Mark has played a key role in the District’s management of a diverse range of events – from a hepatitis A outbreak amongst the gay community before a vaccine existed, to mercury disposal from one of countless local sites used for industry since the early 19th century; or investigating unqualified rogue health ‘practitioners’. 

That’s aside from managing a workforce dedicated to regular tasks like investigations of food poisonings, compliance checking of hospitality venues, or inspections relating to the use of human bodies in anatomical studies at universities. 

“Public health, while it can be exciting, is a completely unpredictable thing. I recall a publicly reported case of a guy whose father was a dentist and was dead set on his son being a dentist, but he didn’t have those qualifications so he was doing like an ‘apprenticeship’. When his father died, he was performing dentistry… with old rusty equipment. When we asked for his patient list, he showed us an appointment book with a few mobile numbers and people’s first names, so there was no way we could contact everyone. Just another day in public health!”

Professor Ferson said the PHU’s role in SESLHD’s successful COVID-19 management can be attributed to the strong local networks of its multidisciplinary team – and its placement within the District’s structure: “We couldn’t have done what we’ve done without being strongly embedded in the District through the Population and Community Health Directorate. Within a couple of weeks we were able to go from 20-odd staff to over 80 people or more with the necessary skills, being able to follow up cases and perform contact tracing.”

While a global pandemic may prove interesting for both students and academics in public health, keeping the community well has remained the focus: “It’s a new disease that we’re learning about, the technical side… But no-one had time to be interested we were all just flat out. This has never happened before during my career,” Professor Ferson said.

“Working with colleagues during COVID, the incredible way that people throughout the organisation have worked together – that’s been wonderful, if you can put it that way!” 

Dr Marianne Gale, Director, Population and Community Health, SESLHD, said Mark has played an outstanding role as PHU Director: “Throughout his many years of service, Mark has been a valued colleague displaying and sharing his wisdom, good humour and commitment to improving the health of our local community. We are glad that we will still have the beneficiaries of Mark’s company and his accumulated knowledge and experience as he transitions to a new role in the Public Health Unit."

 Professor Mark Ferson