Monday, 19 October 2015

Researcher Profile: Dr Inoka Suraweera

In our latest Researcher Profile, we chatted with Dr Inoka Suraweera who completed her post doctoral training with the Monash Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health. Read about her current work with the Ministry of Health in Sri Lanka and her research below.

What is your current job title?

I am the National Programme Manager for Occupational Health at the Ministry of Health in Sri Lanka. I am also a Board Certified Specialist in Community Medicine.

I graduated from the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo, and hold a master's and doctoral degrees in Community Medicine from the University of Colombo.

I completed my post doctoral training at the Monash Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health at Monash University in Melbourne Australia. I am currently working at the Directorate of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Ministry of Health as a Consultant Community Physician.

How did you get into public health research?

I was posted as a Medical Officer of Health after my internship. I began to like Public Health while working as a Medical Officer of Health. I liked working with communities who really needed the services of doctors especially in preventive medicine. After working as a Medical Officer of Health, I thought of specializing in Community Medicine to take up a career in Public Health. I completed MSc in Community Medicine and MD in Community Medicine from the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. I choose a research topic in occupational mental health for my MD thesis.

What inspired you to go into your specific area of research?

My husband is a banker and his friends used to call me and seek medical advice. They had issues with blood sugar control and elevated cholesterol levels even from a comparatively younger age. Some were feeling anxious with heavy mental workloads and I thought it was important to study about occupational mental health. Occupational stress was not a well known entity in Sri Lanka at that time (2007-2009). I choose Professor Rohinie de Alwis Seneviratne, Professor of Community Medicine at the Department of Community Medicine of the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo who is a pioneer in occupational health research in Sri Lanka as my supervisor. I am very grateful to her for her contribution in shaping me up to what I am now. I was lucky since she accepted to be my supervisor. I think mental health especially at work settings need consideration even though it is a competing priority and that is again a reason for me to choose this study area.

Since I left MONCOEH in 2011, I have carried out these research projects:

  • Principal investigator of the research titled “Health issues and working environment among small scale industry workers in Gampaha and Kalutara Districts (2011/2013)
  • Co-investigator of the research project titled “Health issues among communities living near a hazardous waste disposal facility (2012/2013)
  • Co-investigator of the research project titled “ Development of a human resource plan for public health workers to strengthen environmental and occupational health service delivery in Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka (2013/2014)
  • Principal investigator of the research project titled “Prevalence and correlates of occupational stress among Medical Officers of Health and Additional Medical Officers of Health in Sri Lanka”. (2014/2015)

What is your role with the Ministry of Health and what role does it play in public health?

I'm working as a Consultant Community Physician at an end post. I'm also the National Programme Manager for Occupational Health and Safety. This involves planning, implementing, monitoring and evaluating the National Occupational Health programme of the Ministry of Health. It operates in environmental health areas such as climate change, chemical safety and air quality.

I'm also involved in policy planning, planning and implementation of the occupational health and safety programme. I contributed to the development of the National Occupational Health and Safety Policy which was initiated by the Ministry of Labour and Labour Relations in Sri Lanka. The policy was launched in 2014 and Ministry of Health and Ministry of Labour are considered joint stakeholders. I'm teaching undergraduate and postgraduate medical students on occupational health and safety (MSc Community Medicine, lectures on occupational health) and capacity building of other categories of health staff such as Medical Officers of Health and Public Health Inspectors who carry out occupational health services at the grass root level. Alongside this, I'm conducting research in the area of environmental and occupational health and providing expert opinion for inter ministerial affairs.

Inoka also holds these current titles: 

  • Development of National Plans on Climate Change
  • Development of National Plans on Persistent Organic Pollutants
  • Member of the steering committee on chemical accident prevention and preparedness of the Central Environmental Authority of Sri Lanka
  • Board member of National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
  • Member of the Board of Study in Community Medicine, Post Graduate Institute of the Ministry of Health
  • Visiting Lecturer at Rajarata Medical Faculty on Occupational Health

How does public health differ from Sri Lanka to Australia?

The Ministry of Health in Sri Lanka manages the curative health sector which includes all government hospitals and the preventive health sector which has different Directorates for major areas such as Maternal and Child Health, Diseases Surveillance and Vaccination, Nutrition and Environmental and Occupational Health.

The implementation of Public Health programmes of the Directorates is being carried out by the Provincial Health system. Sri Lanka is divided into nine provinces and 26 Regional Director of Health Service areas (RDHS areas). RDHS areas are again divided into Medical Officer of Health areas and Sri Lanka has 335 MOH areas. MOH areas are headed by Medical Doctors who have taken up Public Health and they have their field staff to carry out the public health programmes at the community level.

Medical doctors can do post graduate studies in Community Medicine (MSc, MD) and once they finish their mandatory period of post doctoral attachment in a centre of excellence they become Consultants in Public Health (Consultant Community Physicians) and they work at National level Public Health Programmes and Provincial level.

What are the current pressing public health concerns within Sri Lanka?

  • Chronic Kidney Diseases of unknown aetiology 
  • Dengue
  • Occupational and environmental health issues are competing priorities.

What do you like most about your job?

Occupational health programme needs strengthening in Sri Lanka. I have positively contributed to the development of this programme. I have trained so many medical students, doctors and public health staff on OHS. I like teaching and I find working with experts in other fields is quite challenging and interesting.

I am ever grateful to Professor Malcolm Sim, Dr. Helen Kelsall my supervisors at MonCOEH for their guidance. I was lucky and proud to be at MonCOEH. I am very grateful to Jay and all the staff at MonCOEH during 2010-2011 for helping me to make my stay at MonCOEH so memorable!

We thank Dr Inoka for taking the time to speak with us. 

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