Professor Katina D’Onise had an epiphany about the value of preventive health in her final year of medical school. She worked in a remote hospital in South Africa, which she says was literally overflowing with patients with AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.
“The burden of infectious disease and death was so profound, mixed in with the poverty that was everywhere,” she says. “I thought working as a doctor in this setting was really not achieving anything. We’ve got to step back and work in the prevention zone.”
After her medical degree, she went to work in Aboriginal health as a GP for the next five years with stints in rural and remote areas, where she saw some parallels with her African experience.
“There was poverty, and housing and environmental conditions were extremely bad. I still saw diseases like TB and other unusual infectious diseases that I hadn’t really encountered anywhere in Australia previously,” she says.
This experience fuelled her passion to go into public health and shaped her career. “I valued working with Aboriginal people, learning more about Aboriginal culture and learning how to have respectful interactions with Aboriginal communities,” she says.
Professor D’Onise trained as a public health physician and then completed a PhD in epidemiology, becoming a Senior Research Fellow at the University of South Australia. In 2015, she took on the role of SA Health’s director of the Epidemiology Branch, and in 2017 became the inaugural director of the Prevention and Population Health Branch.
While no longer working in the field in a clinical capacity, Professor D’Onise feels much of her work with SA Health has a direct impact in the community. “It’s a job where I am constantly growing and learning how to work together with others.”
Professor D’Onise is also enthusiastic about SA Health’s new partnership with the Prevention Centre. “It is conveniently timed,” she says. “We were looking to build a very solid evidence base for the work of the prevention arm of the branch going forward and knew that we would need support of a university, so this was perfect.”
When she is not at SA Health, Professor D’Onise spends her time mountain biking or tending her family farm where they grow and raise almost all the vegetables, fruit and meat they consume.