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Queensland’s Chief Health Officer Dr Jeannette Young – the woman behind the role

Thursday 13 August 2020

A photo of Dr Young in her office.
Dr Jeannette Young has served as Queensland's Chief Health Officer for 15 years.

For the past 15 years, Queensland’s public health service has been guided by the medical expertise of Dr Jeannette Young.

As Chief Health Officer, Dr Young has advised the state through natural disasters including Tropical Cyclones Larry and Yasi and the 2010-11 floods. She has tackled record-breaking influenza seasons, the threats of MERS, swine flu and dengue fever, climbing obesity rates and the rise of online anti-vaxxers. Most recently, she has led Queensland Health’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr Young has been our state’s Chief Health Officer for many years, but with the added focus on health in 2020, this year has been the first that many Queenslanders have known who she is and what she does.

We spoke with Dr Young about her time as Chief Health Officer, her medical career, and what Queensland’s top doctor does on her days off (and if she gets any!).

A career marrying logic and compassion

It was 15 years ago that Dr Young was offered the role of Chief Health Officer.

“I started this role on Ekka Show Day in 2005,” she remembers. “I thought it was a good fit for me to take that role on, and I have enjoyed it so much.”

But where did the career of Queensland’s CHO begin?

Dr Young grew up and studied in Sydney. As a young student, she found medicine was a field that allowed her to combine her logical mind with a compassionate practice.

“I loved problem solving,” she says. “I had quite an interest in science and maths and being logical. I also really enjoyed communicating and talking to people, and I felt that all worked together in medicine.”

She started her medical career working in busy Sydney emergency departments, thriving in the fast-paced environment. Little did she know she was building the skill set she would call on years later when leading Queensland through health crises.

“I enjoyed the pace, enjoyed the challenge. Every single shift, coming in and not knowing what I would be facing,” says Dr Young. “It was a really great time. Then I had a baby, and emergency medicine and babies didn’t really work very well back then! So, I went into medical administration and I actually found that I quite enjoyed that because you could make big changes, you could have a big impact.”

After beginning her work in medical management, Dr Young took the role of medical services director at Rockhampton Hospital, far up north in a state she didn’t really know anything about.

“It was a big challenge for me at that point in my career. I went up there for an interview and it was fantastic. I thought, Queensland – I don’t know anything about Queensland!”

But Queensland, and Queenslanders, charmed her, and she and her daughter moved to Rockhampton where they would live for the next four years.

“Everyone was just so friendly,” she remembers. “Everyone was there to assist, and everyone was so genuine. They were all determined to get the best possible outcomes that they could for the community.”

Dr Young would then take on a similar role at the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane’s south, again revelling in the opportunity to make system-wide changes that would improve the lives of Queenslanders.

Becoming Chief Health Officer of Queensland

After her time in Rockhampton and PAH, Dr Young was asked to step into the role of Chief Health Officer for the state. As Chief Health Officer, Dr Young has overseen remarkable changes in the delivery of healthcare and health messaging in Queensland. She credits much of this success to building an expert and driven team.

“My major role has been recruiting the right people. It’s remarkable what we can achieve and what we can do when there’s a committed team,” she says. “Some of the things we’ve managed to do over the last 15 years, when you look at where we’ve come with our results with smoking and obesity, are fantastic.”

The role of Chief Health Officer is multi-faceted. From health disaster planning to cancer screening to the licensing of hospitals and schools of anatomy, Dr Young has to be across it all. She provides leadership and advice on health matters to the Direct Generals of Queensland’s Department of Health, the Health Minister and other key statewide organisations. She herself is the Deputy Director of Queensland Health’s Prevention Division, overseeing strategies aimed at preventing the development of chronic health conditions in Queenslanders and promoting the uptake of healthy behaviours. Every two years, she oversees the publication of the Chief Health Officer report into The health of Queenslanders.

It’s a lot to manage, but Dr Young takes it all in her stride, able to talk at length and with passion about every facet of healthcare and health promotion in Queensland. In 15 busy years, does she have a favourite achievement?

“It’s hard to say, in each area I’ve got one!” she says. “Getting kids immunised was really important. That’s been a fantastic success. Well over 95% of our kids in Queensland are now immunised, and when I came into the job, it was a lot less than that.”

“I’m truly proud of getting Retrieval Services Queensland up and running, and all the work that Dr Mark Elcock has done with me in that space, because that was something that really worried me in Rockhampton; the lack of services for those regional communities. I wanted people who lived in regional Queensland to have the expertise they needed, and the only way you can get that is to make sure you can move them as fast as possible, and we can do that now.”

A photo of Dr Young speaking at a press conference with an AUSLAN interpreter beside her.

Leading Queensland through a pandemic

A major part of Dr Young’s role as Chief Health Officer is planning for and leading the state through health disasters. From outbreaks of influenza to the natural disasters that are part and parcel of living in Queensland, Dr Young has been responsible for providing health advice to Queenslanders at times of great hardship and danger. With all this experience, did she ever think she would be part of a health response as significant as the COVID-19 pandemic?

“Not at all,” she says. “The pandemic we were prepared for was a flu pandemic, and that’s the one we had in 2009. This year we had to very, very quickly review our plans – and we did – and see what the difference was.”

Dr Young’s interest in disaster management and planning began back in her days as an emergency doctor.

“I think that’s why I became interested in disaster response and preparation, because of my emergency medicine work,” she says. “I can still remember the day when I was a senior person on call for Westmead Hospital. I got rung up and was told that a nursing home had to be evacuated because of a fire. We had to immediately create space for 350 residents. That was the first time I was involved in actually having to implement a response to a disaster situation.”

This year, Dr Young has appointed Dr Sonya Bennett as the Deputy Chief Health Officer of the state. For many years, she has worked with Dr Bennett on fine-tuning the pandemic plan that was implemented when the COVID-19 outbreak began.

“I’m very, very proud of the fact that I recruited Dr Sonya Bennett, she is just fantastic,” says Dr Young. “She’s the person that’s just got us so prepared. We did have a pandemic plan that we used for swine flu back in 2009, and after that pandemic, we reviewed that plan.”

“Through the years, as each new virus has rolled out, we’ve reviewed the plan on a regular basis, and that has been led by Dr Bennett. At the end of this pandemic, we’ll do the same thing. We’ll go and review and ask, what could we have done better or differently? How can we be better prepared for the next pandemic?”

Many Queenslanders have become familiar with Dr Young this year through her near-daily press conference appearances, and television, radio and newspaper ads. Providing health information along with a calm, reassuring presence, Queenslanders have turned to her for expert advice about protecting themselves and their loved ones from the virus. In turn, Dr Young is grateful for the cooperation and hard work of Queenslanders in supressing the outbreak in the state.

“I think Queenslanders should be very proud,” says Dr Young. “They do well in a disaster. Every single time, they follow the advice, they prepare, and they get on with things. They’ve done it again, and they’ve been absolutely brilliant.”

CHO’s day off

The role of Chief Health Officer is a busy one at the best of times, let alone in the middle of a pandemic. We asked Dr Young, does she ever get a day off? And if she does, how does she spend her downtime?

“I do get days off!” says Dr Young. “That’s why Dr Bennett was appointed as my deputy. We’re going to be a bit of a duo working together, because we need to be sustainable. This is going to go on for a while yet.”

Like all other Queenslanders, many of Dr Young’s hobbies have been impacted by COVID-19 restrictions.

“I love going to the ballet,” she says. “But not right now, obviously.”

Unsurprisingly, Dr Young also loves getting moving in the great outdoors.

“With my children and my husband, we like doing walks. We love going down to Lamington National Park and doing long walks down there,” she says.

But even as Chief Health Officer, Dr Young isn’t immune to spending the evening on the couch watching a favourite television show – after all, wellbeing is all about a healthy balance. So, does she have a recommendation for Queenslanders looking for their next series to binge?

“I don’t know if it’s a recommendation, because it’s a bit grizzly!” she warns. “But we’re watching Luther at the moment. I like those sort of police dramas, I find them fun to watch.”

Dr Young’s message to Queenslanders

When it comes to the pandemic and the future, Dr Young says she is immensely proud of the response of Queenslanders but urges the public to remember that there is still a long way to go.

“Queensland has responded very, very well, but it’s too early to think we’ve won,” she says. “We’ve still got quite a while to go.”

As knowledge about COVID-19 has evolved, Dr Young says it’s clear the disease can be more serious than many first thought.

“We know that people who get this disease are not just the elderly who were about to die anyway. Some very good work has been done by the University of Glasgow which shows that people who die from this disease will have lost on average 10 years of life.”

“We’re also starting to see more younger people have long-term consequences of the disease. I think people are a little bit confused and some people think it’s just like the flu. And some of the symptoms definitely are just like the flu, but because the virus can attack cells throughout the body, not just the respiratory tract, it can cause problems throughout the body. This is not a disease people should get, if they can avoid it.”

So, what does our top doctor say we should be doing? Dr Young says it won’t come as a surprise to anyone, but handwashing, social distancing and getting tested when sick are still the main actions Queenslanders can take to protect themselves and others from COVID-19.

“If you're sick, stay at home and get tested,” she says. “The more we do that, the more we'll be able to pick up any virus before it spreads and we can't control it. And then secondly, just maintain that social distancing. It's so hard, but it's got to be the new norm for quite some time to come. So, 1.5 metre distancing and wash your hands regularly. And then the third is, don't go to places that there are a large number of cases because this is an easy virus to pick up from other people.”

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Last updated: 13 August 2020