Today we’re interviewing Anne MacFarlane, Professor of Primary Health Care Research at the Graduate Entry Medical School, University of Limerick.
Why did you become an academic?
When I was younger, several people who were close to me were unwell and spent a lot of time visiting GPs and hospitals. I was so struck by the fact that, often, their interactions with doctors and nurses were adding to their distress: for example, things were not explained properly or their worries were dismissed. I became fixated by this, particularly because I was very fortunate to have an excellent GP who never let my family down in these ways – Dr. Bill Shannon who went on to become the first Professor of General Practice in Ireland at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin. So, I kept thinking that these negative healthcare encounters were unnecessary and avoidable. I wanted to know more about why this was happening and to understand more about people, health and healthcare in general. First I opted for a psychology course and took all the health related options going. Then, through my postgraduate research in Health Promotion, I realised I was more satisfied with sociological literature and its accounts of health issues. I also got completely interested in research methods and, particularly issues of rigour in research. I thoroughly enjoyed my teaching experiences and, so, by the end of year 3 I was hooked and determined to get more work as a health services researcher in primary care.
If you were not an academic what would you be?
When I was in nursery school, I wanted to be a nursery teacher, when I was in primary school, a primary teacher and when in secondary school, a secondary teacher. You can probably spot the trend! So, if I wasn’t a university academic I would like to work in another educational setting. I would probably go for primary school teaching. I think it is wonderful watching little people learn and grow between the ages of 5 and 12. I would really enjoy that.
When was the first time you felt accomplished as an academic?
Feeling accomplished is a work in progress because my research and academic goals have changed so much over time. This means that I have to keep updating my knowledge of literature and skills for research methods. That is a really exciting part of being an academic for me but it means that feeling like an ‘expert’ can come and go.
At the same time, if I really think about it I would say my basic sense of confidence in being able to do good academic work improved most after I was working as a lecturer for a few years. My confidence was quite mixed. Then, a really good friend from Ireland who had developed a great career in law at the University of Edinburgh – Prof Niamh Nic Shuibhne – looked through my CV and helped me to ‘see’ the range of teaching and research that I was doing and to acknowledge my productivity. That helped me to think, “okay I am doing this and I can do it well”. That was important.
What are the best and worst reviewer’s comments you’ve ever received?
I have felt good reading reviews describing our work as “elegant in its design” or “innovative” and “original”. I don’t like reading that the work doesn’t add anything (especially when I am sure it has).
If you could do one thing to improve population health in Ireland what would it be?
Building on my interest in people’s experiences of consultations, I am passionate about improving healthcare for migrants in Ireland (and abroad). I would like to see the introduction and routine use of professional, trained interpreters in all healthcare settings so that migrants and healthcare providers have the best chance of understanding each other and addressing migrants’ health needs holistically.
How do you achieve a work life balance?
At one level, I would happily work all the time because I really enjoy it and there are always ‘work thoughts’ going through my mind if I am reflecting on something or planning an idea for a grant or whatever. I will have imaginary debates and arguments in my head with ghost reviewers! However, I hate being stuck to emails or working to deadlines when I am at home. I found that having children helped me with this because I had to put boundaries around my work time. So, now I have about a dozen different strategies that I use to keep a work life balance like priority setting, making lists, saying no, mindfulness and so on. I try to 100% focused when I am at work so I can get things done and then switch off when I am at home. It doesn’t always work but I do try.
What makes you happiest?
When I can make sense of things.
What is your favourite book?
This one is too hard! So I am going to cheat and say my favourite Irish book by a contemporary author is ‘The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty’ by Sebastian Barry.
Where is your favourite place in the world?
I am mad about travelling in Europe at the moment. Wandering through the old part of almost any European city makes me very happy. I am just back from a summer holiday in Berlin and am buzzing at the mix of history, politics, culture and fun.
Who has helped you most in your career?
Professor Carl May has helped me most in my career – we met while I was working in the UK (2000-2002) and he included me in his network after I went back to Ireland. He kept showing me that he had confidence in my work and, at the same time, challenged me about the areas that were missing or needed development. That was a powerful combination. I really appreciated it. Also, Carl introduced me to a large network of academics and that led to my collaborations with Prof Frances Mair, Prof Kate O’ Donnell here in Glasgow and Prof Chris Dowrick, University of Liverpool for the EU RESTORE project. They have been tremendous colleagues – I can’t describe the support and encouragement that they have given me and I am really grateful for that.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
The best advice I have is from my father – to be true to myself.