On track for a storybook career

Dr Kate Thomas is an Internal Medicine Resident at the Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans.

In 2016, Kate graduated from the UQ medicine program’s Clinician Scientist Track, combining her medical degree with a research higher degree.

While completing her MBBS and MPhil through the UQ-Ochsner Clinical School, Kate was intrigued by the concept of using children’s storybooks to tackle tricky health messages.

Her first book – on second-hand smoke exposure – has gained international interest.

Her second book – on healthy weight management – is about to be printed.

We asked Kate to share her story …

The focus of my MPhil was on increasing paediatricians’ screening, counselling and referral rates through health promotion. My Principal Supervisor, Dr Fernando Urrego, proposed the book idea when I was on rotation with his paediatric pulmonology clinic at Ochsner.

We hoped the book would prompt conversations between physicians and caregivers about the dangers of second-hand smoke exposure – a potentially touchy subject to broach. Some people take offence when such issues are raised, or they deny smoking for fear of being judged.

When you consider that caregivers typically see their child’s paediatrician more than their own GP, paediatricians are well-placed to discuss smoking cessation, and advocate for the health of their patients.

The read-along book follows the story of a local New Orleans boy and his grandfather, emphasising the importance of smoking cessation. The book is being distributed through New Orleans paediatric clinics, and 15,000 copies have been printed.

We wanted the book to stimulate discussion between physicians and families. Also, the child can take the book home, so it serves as a constant, subtle reminder that help is available if the caregiver chooses to quit.

What is particularly special is that this may be the first storybook many children will own!

Our second book tackles another important public health issue – promoting healthy weight management in the paediatric patient population.It is estimated that almost 60 per cent of paediatric patients in the US are either overweight or obese.

This story follows a New Orleans girl and her family on a quest to get healthy, as they identify unhealthy behaviours and make changes. In addition, it provides ideas on activities to participate in within the community. Like our smoking cessation book, it addresses a serious problem, while focusing on our unique culture here in New Orleans.

I grew up in Canada in London, Ontario, and completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Waterloo, then a Master of Science at Western University, in a molecular biology laboratory. I have a passion for research, but I wanted to engage with people more than I could in a lab setting. Medicine was really intriguing – it seemed the best way to combine what I loved about research and my need to interact with people.

I found the Clinician Scientist Track when I was researching UQ’s medical program, and the opportunity really called to me. I wanted to make sure that research was an integral part of my future practice. The UQ Clinician Scientist Track and the completion of my MPhil have really supported that goal.

Working with patients to create health behaviour change on a population level is very exciting and rewarding. This degree has already opened so many doors for my career. I have been able to go on multiple national and international trips to present our research.

My MPhil research has resulted in invitations to speak internationally, including at the 54th Annual Conference of the Indian Academy of Pediatrics earlier this year. It was a fabulous experience and many physicians there took a sample of the smoking cessation book.

We have been approached by the Academy to produce a similar storybook geared to the Indian culture. Like America, India has very high second-hand smoke exposure rates. It is exciting to be able to make an impact in two cultures.

My research projects have created stepping stones for work that our research team is currently investigating. This experience has also provided me with fabulous mentors. Dr Urrego at the Ochsner Medical Centre, and Professor Steve Kisley and Associate Professor Di Eley from the Faculty of Medicine have been a tremendous support.

I would highly recommend the UQ Clinician Scientist Track to medical students who want to combine a research higher degree with their medical program. It is a lot of work, but extremely rewarding.