School of Public Health and Community Medicine

Dr Holly Seale: Applying a social science lens to population health

Holly Seale

Social scientist, Dr Holly Seale is Director of the Bachelor of International Public Health (BIPH) at the School of Public Health and Community Medicine (SPHCM), and co-convenes a Masters course in infectious disease and the School's internship program which gives Masters students real-world experience.

Holly has over 12 years of experience in infectious disease, public health and health service research (both qualitative and quantitative) focusing on the attitudes and behaviours of the community, health consumers and healthcare providers, and how these impact engagement with public health and health service strategies. Holly uses behavioural insight data to formulate approaches and interventions to improve the uptake of immunisations and other strategies. During the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic she undertook a series of studies focused on the community’s perceptions to the situation, as well as studies focused on healthcare worker practices.

In response to COVID-19, Holly provides ongoing media commentary and has had several papers published. She has also prepared a rapid review of the factors impacting on engagement with community mitigation strategies, is looking at the immunisation acceptance of novel vaccines, and has led a group of researchers on a community study to identify perceptions of risk and acceptance of strategies, in collaboration with her Masters and PhD students, and colleagues from the NSW Ministry of Health.

Holly was invited to contribute to a World Health Organization (WHO) Think Tank focused on examining the impact of COVID-19 on the use of non-pharmaceutical interventions on communities, and to support the development of a WHO guidance document for countries to support them through the upcoming transition phases. In Australia, she has been consulting with clinical groups around the use of masks/respirators for healthcare workers.

Why did you choose a career in research?

I always wanted to do a biomedical science degree with the end goal of working in a pathology lab. However, towards the end of my undergraduate degree, I had the opportunity to meet with former Head of the SPHCM, Professor Raina MacIntyre who was working at the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance at the time. There was the opportunity to do a project focused on the epidemiology of cytomegalovirus (CMV) and so I took the first detour in my career. My second detour happened at the end of my PhD when I realised that while epidemiology plays a key role in public health, my interest actually lies in undertaking social science research studies.  

What is your research focused on? 

I lead a program of research that is focused on the social aspects of infectious diseases and infection prevention. While many prevention strategies are evidence-based, organisations often fail to explore the broader range of factors that impact on adoption including cultural, resource/human factors and financial/access. Within this program, I research the individual, societal and organisational factors that influence engagement and acceptance of infection prevention strategies, and I formulate and develop approaches and interventions to improve uptake of these. I use the knowledge gained through my research to improve the ways that we communicate, educate or engage the target audience.

What motivates your work during the COVID-19 pandemic? 

During this pandemic, we have asked the public to adopt changes in their lives that are novel, disruptive and have a range of knock on effects.  How can we re-write our pandemic plans to ensure that members of the public are engaged in the process in the future? What can we learn from this experience that we can take away and apply into other public health programs? Knowing that social and behavioural science plays a key role in understanding these aspects inspires and motivates me.

How can students gain practical skills when studying at the SPHCM?

Our internship program was established in 2013 as an optional highly competitive, capstone course in our Masters degrees in public health and health service management. It aims to support our students in making a career transition, develop their skills, knowledge and professional networks as well as provide a platform to integrate their knowledge into practice, thus enhancing the value and relevance of their postgraduate education. Our students have commented that the internship program has given them “first-hand knowledge of contemporary issues being faced by service providers”; exposed them to “practical aspects which are beyond the scope of classroom learning”; and provided a podium to “build networks and connect with international community”.

The Bachelor of International Public Health is designed to build and strengthen the international public health workforce and is delivered entirely online. It offers essential global public health knowledge and skill sets for professional opportunities in a wide range of local and global contexts, as well as for transitioning to a higher degree, including graduate of medicine, a Masters, or a PhD. Applications are now open - find out more.

COVID-19 - Dr Seale's publication and media highlights