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Global ageing guru

Cate Swannell
Med J Aust || doi: 10.5694/mja16.1807C1
Published online: 18 July 2016

Dr John Beard has followed an eclectic career path to the top of global health policy making

DR John Beard’s resume is 34 pages long. It’s a testament to a diverse, spectacular and, according to him, largely unplanned career.

Since January 2009 Dr Beard has been working at the top of global health, as the director of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Department of Ageing and Life Course, based in Geneva, Switzerland.

It’s a position he never expected to be in when he graduated from the University of Adelaide in 1979 with his MB BS in hand.

“It’s been a bizarre career path, really — certainly eclectic,” Dr Beard tells the MJA.

It was while he was a resident medical officer at the Royal Adelaide Hospital that Dr Beard was introduced to the wonders of population health, via research on the healthcare experiences of Japanese people in Japan, Hawaii and mainland USA.

“It showed me how lifestyle can impact on health,” he says. “I was fascinated. It resonated with me and I discovered that I really loved thinking about the health of populations. I was an epidemiologist at heart.”

It was then that Dr Beard decided he would “jump ship” from clinical practice and began studying for his graduate diploma in public health.

“Clinical practice was a privilege — being so intimate with patients. But I was frustrated — it often seemed like putting Band-Aids on problems that could have been prevented.”

The next 10 years saw Dr Beard travelling — from Adelaide to senior house officer positions in Pretoria in South Africa, and London; back to Kempsey in NSW where he worked for the Durri Aboriginal Medical Service, and then in private practice and as a VMO at local hospitals.

In 1991, he was appointed as Regional Director of Public Health for the North Coast of NSW, covering a population of around half a million people. From 1996, the position evolved into the Director of Population Health for the Northern Rivers Area Health Service (NRAHS).

From May to October in 2000, Dr Beard was the Manager Public Health for the Sydney Olympic Games, responsible for coordination of the public health response to outbreaks of disease occurring inside Olympic venues, including the oversight of approximately 60 food inspection and environmental health staff.

From 2001 to 2006, Dr Beard was co-director of the Australian Rural Health Research Collaboration, was on the board of the Australian Rural Health Education Network, and inaugural Head of the Department of Rural Health (Northern Rivers) at the University of Sydney/Southern Cross University.

His career went global in 2006 when he was appointed as senior advisor on Academic Affairs and Senior Epidemiologist at the New York Academy of Medicine, recruited to “develop a research programme in social and environmental epidemiology, with a focus on mental health and aging”.

The leap to the WHO came in January 2009, and Dr Beard is now responsible for “increasing global awareness of ageing as a driving force in shaping 21st century public health; building a sound evidence base on ageing-related issues; and developing policy, standards, interventions and tools that can help address the influence of ageing on global, regional and national health, policies, programs and research”.

The Director works with senior members of many international organisations including the United Nations Population Fund, Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, International Labor Organization, UN High Commission for Human Rights, World Bank, and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, as well as the World Economic Forum, as the current vice-Chair of their Global Agenda Council for an Ageing Society, including planning and moderating related high level sessions at their annual Davos meeting.

So, why did ageing grab his interest, particularly?

“While I was Director of Health for NRAHS, Anne Kempton [from the Northern Rivers Institute of Health and Research] was talking to me about a falls prevention program — she convinced me that there was a lot you could do to bring about changes in behaviour that led to a reduction in falls admissions in the elderly,” Dr Beard says.

“It was random, in other words.”

Dr Beard is acutely aware of his own ageing process. “I’m the father of a 2-year-old at the age of 60,” he laughs.

A big part of his duties at the WHO include “a major knowledge translation program undertaken with the governments of China, Ghana and Chile, and creation of the WHO Global Network of Age-friendly Cities and Communities, which links municipalities with a commitment to becoming better environments in which to age and that jointly cover well over 100 million people”.

Where does Dr Beard want to grow old?

“The WHO has a mandatory retirement age, so that’s a question I ask myself all the time,” he says. “I now feel so globalised, I don’t know if I need to grow old in one specific place.

“As we grow older the spaces we inhabit tend to shrink. I suppose I’ll have to live somewhere but I hope I will remain globalised.

“I’d want to keep my brain active, with the flexibility to live and enjoy where I am and my family.

“One of the theories of old age is that when you realise that you are mortal and nearing the end of your career, your priorities change.

“All my life I’ve always put [my achievements] straight in to my CV,” Dr Beard says. “The last time I updated it, which was quite recently, I thought ‘why am I doing this? Why do I need a CV?’”

Ageism, he says, can be internalised, and stereotypes influence everything, including our own expectations.

Is Australia a good place to grow old?

“I think on a global scale Australia does pretty well,” Dr Beard says. “There’s a social safety net, although it could be a lot better, and could be integrated better with health services. And, socially, there are opportunities for older people to participate.

“There is still ageism and stereotypes but I hope they’re not as bad as in Europe where they are very, very ingrained.”

It has, in short, been a career filled with “the most fantastic opportunities”, Dr Beard says.

“Medical students tend to be told to focus narrower and deeper,” he says. “My advice would be that everybody has their own path.

“I do think that because Australia is an island, we can still be very insular and parochial. If I was a student today, I would take note of how globalised everything has become, and keep my own perspective and priorities.

“When I trained, there were no expectations of anything other than clinical practice.

“I guess I was wired a little differently because I made a non-decision — I opted not to go into advanced training. I couldn’t face the idea of sucking up to the specialists and laughing at their jokes, so I opted out.

“Maintain a broader perspective. Don’t feel obliged to follow a narrow path — be strong across a range of domains and keep your options open.”

Who knows? You could go from a country practice in rural NSW to a global director at the WHO.

  • Cate Swannell


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