RACP Fellows in Focus: Professor Brett Sutton

Date published:
22 Apr 2022

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Professor Brett Sutton has extensive experience and clinical expertise in public health and communicable diseases. He gained this through emergency medicine and field-based international work, including in Afghanistan and Timor-Leste.

Brett represents Victoria on a number of key national bodies including the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC). He is also Chief Human Biosecurity Officer for Victoria. Brett has a keen interest in tropical medicine and the incorporation of palliative care practice into humanitarian responses.

Brett is a Fellow of RACP's Australasian Faculty of Public Health Medicine, as well as The Royal Society for Public Health, The Australasian College of Tropical Medicine, and of the Faculty of Travel Medicine.

When asked about why he chose a life in public health, he exclaimed, “It's a good question. In some ways, public health chose me.” 

“I went into clinical work in the first 10 years of my life as a doctor and that was in emergency medicine. I loved the ‘Sherlock Holmes’ nature of working out undifferentiated emergency department patients presenting, but it was high pressure and poor working hours. I think most fellows in emergency medicine agree with that and tend to transition out in some way or another over the course of their careers. It was always a time-limited role for me. Ten years was the sweet spot in terms of loving it and being passionate about it.” 

After this extensive period of clinical work, Brett worked in the Horn of Africa and East Timor for five years on humanitarian projects in the regions. A place he describes as somewhere to “think” and “experience something different.” 

“I didn't think I'd be in humanitarian work for a lifetime, as those who do, often fall into those categories of mad, missionary or mercenary. I didn't want to be characterised in that way, but it was the seed of seeing population health play out in a global context.” 

Reflecting on his time in emergency departments and his humanitarian work, Brett says the latter was a “powerful reflection on what population health interventions can do, which is the core of public health. 

Would he have taken the same pathway without those experiences? 

“No, I don't think so. I’ve always had an interest in global affairs and global health as part of being a doctor. They were really formative experiences but they weren't the only ones, they were the…they were the crystallising experiences that brought the power of public health home to me.” 

At the age of 18, with eyes wide open, Brett travelled throughout Southeast and South Asia for the first time and found the experiences particularly formative. He noted, “It's a bit of an adrenaline rush in terms of that flow of experiences for a young mind and I've really enjoyed the challenges through hardship and diverse experiences ever since.” 

“I think there's a genuine role that those of us who've had our professional qualities forged in the fire of crisis can bring back to the college. The positives and the negatives to give an unashamedly honest view of what it means to be a fellow in the public health space.”  

“There are people who will never want to be a Chief Health Officer (CHO) and I can totally appreciate that. I don't recommend it to everyone, but going back to the College and providing those reflections on what a professional and personal growth opportunity it is to be working in a specialist area as privileged as public health, I hope, is my gift back to the College.” 

“There are so many tricky paths along the way, and it’s an entirely fresh skillset that's being developed. Technical expertise built over a long period of time and in the last 10 years, my understanding of public health and communication skills are being built. And on this journey, they've been challenged with political commentary, social media commentary - you know - lots of this is a hugely contested area. And because, you know, it's a global crisis of enormous magnitude, the strength of feeling of people and the way that…ideology, personal philosophy, value systems intersect with, with people's understanding and commentary about the pandemic that becomes a…really tricky path to tread. And so you, you develop skills in terms of trying to hear those voices that still deserve to be heard – still continue to shape your views of how you navigate, deepen your understanding of social license and social capital and willingness to follow health advice.”

A high-profile figure in Australia during the pandemic and guiding voice throughout the tumultuous two years we all experienced, Brett reflected on his time as CHO and how his legacy in the role was aided by those he served. 

“I was a steward of risk communication and public health communication throughout that period, but the response in Victoria was world-beating and we've…you know the challenges that we faced are known to all, and we did it, through a kind of hyper-acute commentary, globally and locally. 

“The challenge was that people challenged every aspect. When you've got raging bushfires or floods, no one contests their existence. We had a contested space about almost anything you can think of. Whether the PCR test was real; whether the virus was real; whether it genuinely caused illness; and whether any of the public health interventions worked or were proportionate. 

“For Victorians to allow me to cut through that fog and to be so profoundly determined and supportive at a community level was incredible. We couldn't get back down to zero transmission without a ‘tribal’ sense of supporting each other.

“However, Victoria needed it and needed to do it for the rest of Australia because that was a time when we didn't have a vaccine and there was no guarantee we would have one. 

This is a humble brag because I'm proud of what Victoria did through this pandemic, but I'm also proud of the role that I played in cutting through the noise.” 

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