Spotlight on Prof Patricia Kearney

Posted: 15 July, 2021

As vaccinations continue en masse across the country, there is a new, palpable sense of hope that life might soon return to some semblance of normality. It is important, though, that we never forget the extraordinary effort and sacrifice of our front-line workers. Their everyday lives have been just as disrupted, and their families have been just as impacted, yet still they “show up” and form the shield that allows the rest of us to sleep a little easier, knowing that they are there.

Professor Patricia Kearney is one such individual. Professor of Epidemiology in the School of Public Health, University College Cork, and a member of the IRC Council, Professor Kearney has been seconded to the Contact Management Programme (CMP) since early November last year. She divides her week between the university and the CMP, where she is the acting lead for education and training, overseeing the training of contact tracers. Her role with the CMP requires her to stay abreast of the latest guidelines, ensuring that contact tracers are providing accurate and consistent information. Speaking about her work she notes, “communication is such an important part of outbreak management and it’s so important that we get that right.”

Professor Kearney has found her dual perspective as a public-health researcher and a public-health worker interesting when taking stock of Ireland’s response to the pandemic. She observes that in comparison to countries with more exposure to natural disasters, such as Australia, Ireland had poorer disaster-management protocols in place. In her view, this, coupled with under-resourced public-health services, resulted in a reduced capacity to deal with a swell in cases, particularly in emergency departments. However, Professor Kearney lauds the “incredible community-level response of people on the ground, the small things like post-office workers calling in on older people and delivering medicines, as well as the efforts of groups like Active Aging and GAA clubs.”

Professor Kearney also commented on the “system-level changes such as the use of e-prescriptions, that we had been grappling with for a long time, being fast-tracked and now accepted in pharmacy’s nationwide.” These developments resonate with her research into public health, demonstrating agility within the public-health system that would have been unheard of before COVID-19 forced the need for adaptation.

Another change in practice that has arisen over the past year is the move online. While there are undeniable benefits to face-to-face meetings, there is also a compelling case for a blended approach. The pandemic has opened up the country in interesting ways: for instance, the movement of some conferences and meetings online has allowed greater work-life balance. Professor Kearney notes that, “as someone who works full time and has a family, I certainly find that people achieve a lot through online working while cutting down on unnecessary travel.”

Within the School of Public Health, the move to remote working was aided greatly by a very supportive team of staff and students. Professor Kearney commends the efforts of Professor Ella Arensman, Ireland’s only Professor of Public Mental Health, who has set up a social club for sharing common interests, from gardening to baking, and journal clubs and academic support.

In reflecting on the last year, Professor Kearney highlights some positive aspects: “I am very fortunate to work within the School of Public Health where we acknowledge that not everyone is experiencing things from the same perspective, some people are living alone and are missing that social interaction more. Many have been surprised by how much seeing a different face and sharing social time has meant to them, which has been nice.”

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