Stellenbosch University
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New divisional head takes futuristic approach to public health
Author: Wilma Stassen
Published: 05/06/2019

​​Through innovation, ingenuity and collaboration Prof René English intends to tackle some of the challenges facing public health, now and in the future.

English, a medically trained doctor with a PhD in Medicine, a specialist qualification in Public Health Medicine and a passion for public health, has taken over the reins at the Division of Health Systems and Public Health at Stellenbosch University's Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences.

“My interest in public health was piqued while working in health facilities in low-income settings in South Africa. I would treat one patient with a certain condition and then wonder where all the other patients are. Are they getting treatment? Are they aware of interventions? Or I would think about how to reorganize a health facility to better manage the queues," says English, who holds a MMed in Public Health from the University of Cape Town.

According to her, the South African health system requires considerable strengthening. “We need to support managers and decision makers to develop policies, and also enable people working at the coalface to deliver those policies," says English, who joined the FMHS after eight years with Health Systems Trust (HST) where she headed the Health Systems Research Unit.

She has returned to academia to do her part in building capacity and strengthening the health system, and also to help with, what she calls, “future proofing" public health. “We are entering the fourth industrial revolution, and there are emerging public health issues like climate change, globalization and emerging infectious diseases like SARS, Zika virus and Ebola infections.

“We need to start looking at public health through a 'futuristic lens'. We should think about how to leverage knowledge from disciplines other than medicine to improve the health of the population, using artificial intelligence, robotics or big data."

“I'm excited to have joined a future-focused university, which thinks about things such as internationalisation and partnering with universities in Africa and elsewhere in the world, and to work with the younger generation who have an affinity for technology. I think this could provide fertile ground for the advancement of public health," she says.

In her new role as divisional head, English endeavours to build capacity among staff and students, and to facilitate research that is of real concern to government, policy makers, and communities of our country. “Through its teaching and research activities, I would like to see this division produce public health practitioners and other health workers who can effect chance in their workplaces and communities. I would like for everyone who have gone through our programmes and courses to have sufficiently transformed to be able to make an impact on the ground towards addressing the key issues in our country," says English.

Most of her private time is allocated to young people – she has a two-year old daughter who keeps her “very busy", and she is also involved in a newly-established NGO, AfrA Foundation, that works to reduce drop-out rates of young people in primary and high school, amongst other activities. “I have a particular interest in the youth and I spend a good part of my weekends either thinking about or working on the programmes offered by AfrA Foundation."

Earlier this year, English was appointed to the Health Ministerial Task Team for Human Resources for Health where she serves as Chair of the Information, Monitoring and Evaluation Workstream. In 2017 she served on the Lancet National Commission on High Quality Health Systems, and was also the recipient of the Africa Science Leadership Fellowship jointly awarded by the University of Pretoria, Global Young Academy, Robert Bosch Foundation, and Leopold Leadership Programme at Stanford University.


Photo credit: Wilma Stassen