Woman in Public Health: Dr Spo Kgalamono

Dr. Spo kgalamone Dr Spo Kgalamono is Head of Occupational Medicine and is currently focussing on mental health in the workplace.

What is the nature of your current work?

I am an Occupational Medicine Specialist and currently the Head of Occupational Medicine at the National Institute for Occupational Health (NIOH). My work entails managing the Occupational Medicine section of the NIOH, doing clinical assessments of employees, conducting research around Occupational Health issues, and teaching and training.

What career path led you to the position you currently have?

My father passed away when I was in matric, and I have always suspected that he died of an occupational illness. This sparked an interest in me to study medicine and find the closure that I needed. Due to a lack of funds I first studied nursing (BCur), with the aim of raising funds to put myself through medical school. I got married after qualifying as a nurse, and my husband put me through first year, after which I got a bursary. I started working at the NIOH as a medical officer in 2000, did my diploma in occupation health (DOH) from 2000 to 2001, and in 2002 I got my current position as Head of Occupational Medicine and I qualified with an MMed in Occupational Medicine.

What do you think is the most significant contribution you have made to the field of Public Health?

My aim has always been to empower the often most disadvantaged stakeholder in the workplace: the employee. I have therefore done extensive work in various companies, providing informal training for employees on occupational health and safety legislation and their rights in general. My fluency in various African languages was a great asset in achieving this. I have also served in an advisory capacity, assisting employees with their submissions for compensation.

Is there a particular woman in Public Health that inspires you?

I am generally inspired by all working women who run a double shift daily, looking after family after a tiring and demanding day at work, and still managing to compete favourably in the workplace. In the field of Public Health, I find Prof Sharon Fonn (Wits University Head of the School of Public Health) a true inspiration in how she uses academic weapons to break down barriers in society.

What message would you like to give to aspiring female Public Health professionals?

The field of Public Health is not a glamorous field, and is often not financially rewarding. It is therefore important to have your priorities right: the right heart in the right place. The biggest reward in this field is seeing your impact on the community at large.

What do you aspire to see in women in Public Health?

Hard work, dedication, commitment and passion towards making the world a better place, are all critical success factors. There is a lot more groundbreaking work to be done, and I aspire to see more female pioneers in various areas of Public Health.

What interesting work are you currently busy with?

I am currently establishing a Mental Health in the Workplace Unit for the National Health Laboratory Services (NHLS) and the South African workforce at large. I am also looking into factors that influence the provision of Public Occupational Health Services in South Africa. What are your personal goals in the field of Public Health? My ultimate goal is to work at an academic level, influencing the quality of Occupational Health Professionals coming out of our academic institutions. I therefore plan to study towards a PhD, and I definitely plan to retire in Occupational Medicine.

What are the challenges you face in achieving your goals?

There are very few Occupational Medicine Practitioners in South Africa, and the burden of the work that needs to be done can be overwhelming. Occupational Medicine, being a fairly new speciality, is often not taken seriously. We often need to affirm our position and prove our worth to our more clinically-orientated colleagues. With persuasion and integrity, however, it is possible to gain respect and make our mark within the health system as a whole. Insufficient resources can also be a challenge, but I have seen that It is possible to achieve even in a resource-limited setting.

What are some possible solutions to these challenges?

Occupational Medicine Practitioners need to work harder to make a noticeable impact in our communities. We need to shift from personal gratification, to a more community-centred approach to what we do. Providing occupational health education to unsuspecting employees (e.g. Healthcare workers) is one way of marketing our trade, and asserting our position as an invaluable part of comprehensive health care in South Africa. Another way of doing this is integrating Occupational Medicine into our undergraduate training of healthcare workers, thus giving them exposure to the field.

How do you balance work and family?

I am not certain that I have struck a good balance as yet. Depending on demand, I often swing between the two roles, some months focusing on work and other months focusing on my family. I try my best to satisfy both worlds, and though challenging, my spiritual background gives me the strength I need.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I am involved in community activities around empowering women. I have just started a couples ministry which tackles relationship issues for couples – married and unmarried. The focus of the ministry is to empower women – who I believe are the strongest pillar in any family unit. I also have a soft spot for orphans, and have financially adopted a few children, some of whom have completed school and are now working. I plan to open an orphanage where the children I have raised can also plough back, lengthening the channel of goodwill.

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