Researcher of the month: Dr David Thomas

Doctor goes to war on a world of smoking

Associate Professor David Thomas was not content just helping one person at a time, so he decided to take on a role where he could help an entire population.

He went from being a doctor to working as the Head of the Tobacco Control research program at the Menzies School of Health Research in Darwin.

Thomas said once he decided to become a part of the public health industry he had to do further study.

"I have qualifications from the University of Sydney (MBBS), Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (DTM&H), the University of Newcastle (MMedSc), Northern Territory University (PhD), and the Royal Australian College of Physicians (FAFPHM)," he said.

"Eventually I decided to concentrate on full-time research into population health. I started doing research about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander smoking because it causes so much harm." One in five Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths are due to smoking.

Thomas leads a research team trying to understand how to better help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people quit smoking or not to start smoking.

"We do this by analysing existing data sets, interviewing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and evaluating different policies and tobacco control activities," he said.

"We have been fortunate to win several very competitive grants and government contracts to do this important work.

"I also spend a lot of my time making sure that our research and other research evidence is used to improve health policy and practice in the NT and elsewhere."

Of course, a job of such magnitude comes with challenges.

"You have to be very precise and need an enormous attention to detail in everything you do," Thomas said.

"There can be no cutting of corners and fudging. You have to be very certain about the answers you come up with, and also be very explicit about all the limitations of your findings."

He said it also can be challenging to keep up with the enormous amount of research published each day and to both win the funds to do the research and attract suitable staff. Luckily, his team has been very successful on both counts.

But even though working in a field such as health research does come with more than a few obstacles, Thomas said the rewards make it worth it.

"Just like being a doctor, the best thing is knowing you are helping people so that they can live healthier lives that are less constrained by illness and deaths." he said.

"And of course working with terrific people I work with a terrific team of researchers at Menzies and with fantastic people working in other academic institutions in Australia and overseas, in Aboriginal medical services and in government departments."

Working in health research can be demanding but Thomas believes it is a very worthwhile industry for anyone seeking to make a difference.

"Research is important to provide answers to how to improve how we work," he said.

"Health research helps everyone in the health system do an even better job in helping make Australia a healthier place.

"And if you are working in health in Australia, working in Aboriginal health is so important given the great need."