Q&A with Dr Lisa Caffery: Lisa uses rural and remote health PhD to leverage career

06 December 2021

Lisa Caffery is one of five graduates to receive PhDs at graduation ceremonies in Rockhampton this week (Tuesday 7 December' 2021). Lisa has spent the past few years taking a deep dive into rural and remote health in communities of less than 2000 people' filling information gaps in rural health equity knowledge in Australia. She now has plans to use her PhD to leverage her career in various directions.

Q. Tell us about the topic of your PhD?

A. My PhD took a deep dive into rural and remote health at the small-scale settlement level (populations of 2000 people or less). In particular' I was searching for the factors that may inhibit or enable health equity in a small geographically isolated area. This was tricky because there is significant paucity of health research data at this grassroots level. So' I decided to take a novel approach to this research by applying my professional experience using socioeconomic assessment tools in the resource sector and reframing them to use within a rural and remote health context. In practical terms this meant casting a new lens over this enduring and complex issue that is omnipresent for many small remote communities.

Q. What potential impact will your research into this topic have?

A. As a social researcher I would like to think that this research will challenge conventional wisdom and prompt fresh thinking about the drivers of rural health equity. Rural and remote Australia is not a smaller version of urban Australia. So' a health solution that works in the city will not necessarily transfer easily to a rural situation. My research found that many health equity factors in rural and remote communities were often invisible and easily overlooked in urban health policy discourse. Place-based factors are intertwined with rural health equity' and it is often the non-medical conditions that can impede a person's ability to achieve good health. For example' low-income brackets' low education' food poverty and limited access to local transport options can shape a community's position in the wider health ecosystem and impact health outcomes. A shift in thinking is needed about how we invest in rural health and resources need to be allocated based on a deep understanding of health equity opportunity gaps.

My overarching goal of this research was to fill some clear information gaps in the rural health equity knowledge base in Australia and also develop some bespoke practical health equity tools that could be applied in other rural and remote settings either in Australia or internationally. I think another important outcome from my research was an improved ability to identify the rural determinants of health for small-scale villages' while still recognising a community's economic' social and environmental health strengths.


Q. Tell me about your appointment as Chair of the Sunwater Board of Directors in October?

A. I have held several part-time non-executive director roles at the regional level for nearly a decade' but once I submitted my PhD at the end of June this year I started to think about advancing my board career and stepping up to a state-wide role. I have a professional background in community engagement' especially within the Environment Social Governance (ESG) space' so I was particularly interested in an organisation that had a strong sustainability focus and was purpose-led. Water is life sustaining and one of our most valuable sovereign natural resources. Ensuring regional Queensland has water for prosperity is at the core of Sunwater's mission. Delivering water to more than 5000 irrigation' industrial' commercial and urban customers' Sunwater understands how water security is fundamental to the ongoing economic' social and environmental health of regional communities. Living in regional Queensland myself' this commitment to the communities it serves is what attracted me to Sunwater and makes me proud to be its Chair.

Q. Tell me about your consulting company and its success and growth?

A. Having a background as a social researcher' I decided to start my own consulting firm in 2009' two years after having my first child. Living in a remote mining town at the time it was difficult to juggle family life' a husband who worked 14-hour shifts and a full-time corporate career' so it just made sense to create a work environment that best suited my personal circumstances. I was able to quickly build up a solid client base across Queensland and would work on projects in and around my family commitments. This would often involve travelling long distances to see clients on my husband's days off or taking my son with me and organising care for him while I was having my meetings. I know many rural women who have similar stories to me – my career path definitely has not been unique. However' the recent increased use of interactive communication technologies such as video conferencing has definitely made it easier for rural women to engage more fully in the business world. In recent years' I have been able to be more selective with my clients and focus on providing high-level strategic advisory services mainly in the Environment Social Governance (ESG) space. Corporate Australia is becoming increasingly aware of responsible business practices and the impact of a broad range of issues such as climate change' social license' social equity' modern slavery' health and wellbeing' and impact reporting. Nowadays' I primarily assist clients to develop' analyse or benchmark ESG strategies or provide gap analysis of current reporting systems.

Q. How will your PhD leverage your career and into what direction?

A. No two days are the same in my line of work. So having the ability to absorb new information quickly and then identify and analyse trends in disparate information is a vital skill that I have gained from my PhD training. After four years of reading complex journal articles' I am now confident in my ability to develop' source and validate most quantitative and qualitative data put in front of me. Despite what many people may think about a PhD being a solo academic pursuit' I found it to be a deeply collaborative endeavour that requires building strong advisory relationships with my supervisors. I learned that communicating with colleagues with structure' clarity and precision was essential and being able to work as part of a team made my ideas stronger. Doctoral training has further developed some practical business skills that I now use every day like performing a deep-dive into a topic and knowing how to drill down into a question from a range of angles' or authoring a tailored report for customer endpoints and not just repackaging existing content' or conducting original research with the aim of presenting an impactful briefing to a large external audience.

Post-doctorate' I will continue to grow my independent ESG advisory services firm as well as serve as the board chair of Sunwater and deputy chair of the Central Queensland Hospital and Health Service Board. Looking longer term into the future' I hope to further develop my strategic governance career and take on non-executive director roles with a national or international focus.