Su Pei Khoo, MA

Universiti Malaya, Malaysia
Medical Science

What does public health mean to you?

To me, health is a basic human right and public health is a dynamic field of study which aims to improve health and well-being of the population. It emphasizes on prevention and education, often with a balance between individual liberty and collective welfare. Public health interventions are organized measures, which constantly strive for health equity by closing the gaps in healthcare access. In short, for me, public health means “nobody gets left outside”.

What inspired you to study public health?

I am trained as a pharmacist and worked in this capacity at a number of government-run primary care clinics for 2 years. This was my first and direct exposure of the range of health issues experienced by patients and the organisational challenges faced by healthcare professionals. This motivated me to start my research journey to improve the healthcare system with scientific advancement. I started my research work in clinical science and eventually learnt that there is a huge gap in conveying the research outcomes or ‘end-product’ to the public. Public health initiatives are generally well structured to be adaptable to different subpopulations based on their unique characteristic, ensuring that everyone benefits from the latest scientific solutions. These initiatives impact disease prevention and health promotion. It is a very rewarding experience to see how a handful of measures can be tailored to different contexts and improve health outcomes as a whole.

What has been the single most rewarding experience of your career or studies so far?

The most rewarding experience was my internship with the community-based Human Papillomavirus (HPV) prevalence study, which aimed to establish a baseline population-based HPV prevalence. This study resulted in the first ever data on HPV prevalence among a large cohort of healthy Malaysian males and females. In this study, I was also exposed to the barriers that hinder women from their routine cervical screening. Utilizing self-sampling HPV testing as one of the strongest self-care interventions, I believe that science and education can save lives.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing public health today?

The biggest challenge facing public health today would be health care inequity. It is not even about lack of resources, it’s about the fair distribution of what we have. The COVID pandemic has brought to fore the ugly aspects of health inequities. People with lower socio-economic status are at a higher risk of contracting diseases and cervical cancer is a prime example of this. In 2018, more than 80% of new cervical cancer cases and mortality happened in the low and middle-income countries. Over the decades, the employment of cervical screening using cytology (Pap smear) has led to a major decline of cervical cancer incidence in the high-income settings. The high burden of cervical cancer in the low-resource setting is associated with poverty, lack of healthcare access and low education level. Inconsistent screening resources and uptake in the poorer settings have taken a big toll on women’s lives.

What advice would you offer someone who is thinking about a career in public health? 

I would advise them to find a cause that they really want to fight for before they start a career in public health. It is never an easy field to dive in but always keep in focus the ultimate goal that led to them to the field of public health. Most importantly, read as widely as possible and have a bird’s eye view of the global perspective for we live in an interconnected and every changing world. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction- public health is about anticipating such actions and reactions. It encompasses diverse disciplines to ensure attainment of optimal health and well-being for all. It is very crucial to stay updated with current affairs and be innovative in designing preventive measures for disease control.