Exploring Equity in Healthcare and Motherhood with Dr Sharon Tan
Dr Sharon Tan is a public health researcher and dentist. Her work involves understanding the health challenges faced by various groups including the underprivileged in society, assessing the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of different health interventions, and translating these findings into practice to improve the health of the population.
Besides work, Sharon volunteers with various organisations supporting causes such as migrant workers, mental health and better oral health for those with special care needs. Particularly on overseas trips, she enjoys hiking to get in touch with nature, and derives great satisfaction from reaching a summit after an uphill climb.
Sharon shares with us how her personal experience in her pregnancy journey so far has helped her better recognise the barriers and subconscious biases that women still face in various sectors of society. She believes that by highlighting and overcoming these would result in better women representation within the research community.
The past few years have been busy given the public health challenges faced during the pandemic. It is encouraging that the importance of good public health policies and research, a previously underappreciated field, has been brought to the fore.
During the pandemic, false or misleading information was able to spread quickly through social media. This can hamper the control of outbreaks. Public health researchers work to critically assess the quality and validity of emerging data and evidence so as to better manage the infodemic. Infodemics and misinformation are ongoing issues that still require further thought and work.
It has been challenging at times to get adequate funding for research and push for policy changes for better public health. Despite multiple rejections along the way, I found that it helps to view my work as a marathon rather than a sprint, and to not take rejections and failures personally.
As part of my work, I interact with individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds. Michael Marmot's book "The Health Gap" talks about health inequalities, about how the social gradient brings about health disparities, for example, how children were found to have the best socio-emotional behavioural outcomes when both parents had paid employment and worst outcomes in single parent households with no income. While life doesn't always deal everyone a fair hand, there are always ways to uplift lives even in difficult situations, such as by providing support, fair incentives and rewards. We just have to keep trying.
It has been challenging having to navigate career planning and starting a family. PhD studies are beneficial to my research career, but making this choice comes with limited stipends and uncertain maternity benefits. From my experience, some organisations impose a strict 3 month period whereby employees are not entitled to any medical benefits, and some HR departments appear hesitant about offering contracts to women in their early stages of pregnancy.
The worry does not stop at pregnancy. While paternal leave is available, employers may not quite embrace the concept of shared parental responsibility in actual practice. An often-asked question from the community when discussing the possibility of sharing one month of maternity leave (out of four) with my husband is: "Will your husband lose his job?"
I also often hear comments that suggest that women should remain as the primary caregiver. "Going back to work, as opposed to being a full-time stay-at-home mum, is actually the easy way out", and "Women lose their ambition once they have kids." I personally don’t believe women striving hard in their careers pre-pregnancy would drop their ambitions if not for the lack of support and good alternatives.
While society has progressed in providing more infant care and child care options for working parents, my friends' experiences suggest that it can be stressful managing emergencies when kids fall sick and get sent home, which is a fairly frequent occurrence. It is also important to be sensitive and respectful when it comes to the topic of "intensive grandparenting". Our society is making the right steps, but may not be fully matured when it comes to the sharing of caregiving responsibilities.
Dr Intan Azura, a former MP and founder of WoW (Women of W – wonder, wisdom, wealth of experience and other words of empowerment that start with ‘w’) has been a great champion of women's development. Most recently, she spoke about the leaky pipeline, and how there are few female leaders in academia. Dr Hsien-Hsien Lei, whom I've had the opportunity to work with while planning for a conference, has also been a strong advocate against "manels", in other words, panels without any female representation. It is heartening that leaders in society recognise the barriers and subconscious biases that women still face in various sectors of society, and work hard to highlight and overcome them.
I have also been fortunate to meet and work with many supportive bosses and mentors since my schooling days. Through them, I am constantly reminded of the importance of paying things forward, and being generous with time and support for others.
Work in public health often reminds me of the importance of prioritising health and well-being, and that prevention (of burnout) is better than cure.
For example, I am thankful for colleagues and friends who work in the space of maternal and child health, who remind me that about 1 in 8 women suffer from antenatal depression, and 1 in 14 suffer from postpartum depression. This helps me to keep things in perspective when planning and managing my life.
Above all, I'm grateful for a supportive husband who nudges me to set aside time to relax, exercise, go on dates, watch Netflix and get adequate sleep.
Remember to be kind to yourself!
*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Photos c/o Augustine Yuen