Dr. Joanne Maree Flavel

Interviewers: Dr. Cate Bailey

In this series of interviews with Early Career Researcher (ERC) health economists, we look at understanding what paths people have taken to become health economists, what ECRs do as health economists and what their aspirations are. 

In previous years we have asked our interviewees to answer questions about themselves in written form. This year, we are spicing this up a bit and asking them on the fly, in front of a zoom camera.

We hope you enjoy hearing about journeys that ECRs have taken.

We are delighted to introduce you to today’s ECR, Dr Joanne Flavel, who is a research fellow at the University of Adelaide in South Australia, at Stretton Health Equity. Jo has qualifications and experience in economics and public health; she is a scholar in social epidemiology, but her quantitative skills and social science background are interdisciplinary. Her research focuses primarily on health equity and social determinants of health. 

The interviewer is Dr Cate Bailey, an ECR in the Health Economics Unit at the University of Melbourne. Her background is in public health research, applied statistics and health economics, and she has previously worked in Federal and State government in Australia.

Full transcript: 

Can you start by telling us what part of the world you are in, what time it is, and whether you are working from work or home, and what that looks like for you?

  • I’m in Australia, in Adelaide, it’s almost 1130 in the morning here. I’m working from home. I quite often work from home, I’ve been doing that for years, I’m working from home a lot more now with Covid, especially because I’ve got a disability, I’m trying to manage that risk to my health. I find it quite good working from home, I can manage my zoom meetings; that technology has been really valuable since Covid with everybody using it. I find my days can be quite productive, especially working from home and still being able to have those meetings. 

Where did you do your PhD, and what was it like to do a PhD in Health Economics at that institution?

  • I did my PhD at Flinders University at the National Institute of Labour studies which you wouldn’t normally think of as somewhere you would do a Health Economics PhD, but it was jointly supervised with the  Southgate Institute for Health, Society & Equity, so it had that health and then also the labour studies, so my PhD was very much a mix of Health Economics and Labour Economics. It was good, because I had the expertise in those two areas, so my supervision covered both things, and its meant that the work that I do, I’m quite comfortable with the labour side and the health side. There were challenges, there always are with a PhD. I was doing mine part time due to my disability, so it took quite a while, but I was very happy with the end product.

How did you transition to becoming an ECR after completing your PhD?

  • I was fortunate, because in the research environment in Australia, jobs are not always guaranteed when you finish your PhD, but I was a Research Assistant at the National Institute of Labour Studies before I started my PhD, I did some casual work with them while I was doing it, and they said to me ‘when you finish your PhD we’ve got a job for you’, so I started working there, after I had a break (which was exactly what I needed to recharge from the PhD), but it was only 6-8 weeks, and then I started work, and worked straight through. I got to do some work that was very much using the health and labour economics, such as evaluations of the National Disability Insurance Scheme and a survey of the Aged Care Workforce.  

Do you have more of an economics or health background, and what’s your take on that as a health economist?

  • It used to be more Economics, but I would say, its very much split between both now, so I’m quite comfortable in economics and in health, and a mix of the two. I think it is good to have both; economics is just so useful for answering different questions, and health has just become so relevant with the pandemic as well. I was busy before the pandemic, but it’s been up at another level now; these skills are so useful in so many different ways.

What sort of topics are you currently working on…

  • I’ve got a few. Because I’ve got quantitative skills, and they are quite well developed from my PhD, I’ve done some really complex analyses, so tend to find that its not hard to get projects. I’m working with a couple of different organisations; one is a National approach to measuring non-fatal crash outcomes. There’s been a lot of focus on fatal crashes and measuring that, but the non-fatal crashes were something that were needed to be working on, especially as we have got targets for reducing non-fatal crashes. We want to be able to reduce them by about 30% over the decade. The project that I’m working on there, with the Research Centre for Injury Studies at Flinders, it branches back to my previous work at Flinders that I’m now doing at Adelaide University, which is intended to inform on the trend in non-fatal road injuries. 
  • My main work is around Social Determinants of Health, and I’ve just started working on a major fellowship for restoring a fair go, looking in to how those health inequalities have worsened. I’ve done a few projects on that in the lead up to this study, the fellowship will focus on how inequalities have worsened and what policies we should have in place to be able to try and address that? I’m looking at the quantitative side of it, but there is a lot we can look at here. My experience in economics, the labour market and health economics are relevant to that. 

And what would you like to be working on?

  • I would say that what I’m working on is exactly what I want to work on – I’m very fortunate in that because I know that not everyone gets to do that. Having said that, it hasn’t been smooth sailing.  People can be envious when they talk with me about my work, and I get to work with some great people that let me have a lot of autonomy and flexibility in my work.  They will ask me my opinion about what direction we should go, so I feel privileged in that, but there have been a lot of bumps in the road to get to this. I’ve mentioned before about the research environment in Australia; I started off at the National Institute of Labour Studies but it closed after I worked there for two years, and then I was unemployed for nine months, before I got work at the Southgate Institute at Flinders University. Then that closed after I worked there for three years, and I had to get a new job again. I was fortunate that the people I worked with had funding and I went with them to the Stretton Health Equity. 

What do you like about being a health economist, and what challenges has this posed?

  • What I like about being a health economist is that the skills are just so useful for so many things.  I like that a lot of our skills are policy relevant. The work that I’m doing at Stretton Health Equity is strongly related to policy now, as the Stretton Institute is strongly based in policy relevant research. I do like that, but the challenges that it has posed is that sometimes the research can be, well not so much controversial, but not necessarily liked by some in government. It is important work, and the answers are not always what people want, but it is important to explore that. 

Is there anything you would have done differently if you were beginning your career now?

  • It’s hard to know, because I think the work situation in Australia is what it is…I don’t think I’d want to change anything because I’m happy with where I’ve gotten to, even though it was a rocky road to get here. 

What are your goals for the next 5-10 years, within our outside academia?

  • I think its mainly keeping my job, after losing it twice already…I’d like to keep on doing the research I’m doing, keep doing research I enjoy. That’s something I feel fortunate to be able to do. I’d like to stay in academia, even though the workload is brutal. I’d just like to keep on doing what I’m doing, as I’m in the fortunate position of doing something that I enjoy.