Dr Ruth Cunningham’s academic career has certainly been varied and interesting; she trained to be a jeweller and also did a BA in philosophy while completing her medical degree. Now she is working towards her PhD in Public Health at the University Otago, Wellington and a career in public health research; along with looking after three pre-schoolers under four.
“Yes it is quite busy,” she says with a laugh. “I had twin girls eighteen months ago and I have another daughter who is four, so the PhD under Dr Diana Sarfati in the Department of Public Health is a nice change from looking after my delightful daughters.”
Ruth Cunningham’s doctorate, with funding from an HRC clinical fellowship, is focusing on the unanswered question of what happens when someone with severe mental illness then develops cancer? How and when it is diagnosed, what treatment is offered and received, and what is the outcome in terms of survival compared to those who do not have a background in mental illness?
“It’s a really interesting and unexplored area in New Zealand. We don’t have any firm data on this health issue and I hope that my findings will help improve treatment and make sure that people with mental illness get a better deal if they are diagnosed with cancer, or even other illness.”
Cunningham first became aware of the difficulties that psychiatric patients with poor physical health can experience when she worked as a junior doctor in psychiatry both in this country and the UK. She saw people struggling, slipping through the cracks and not getting the treatment they should because of their struggles with mental health issues.
She says sometimes people in this situation are ignored by the system or their health problems are assumed to be mental problems. Serious illnesses like brain cancer may be missed because they are confused with mental illness. Overseas studies show that people with psychiatric illness have a shortened lifespan and are less likely to get recommended treatments after heart attack and stroke.
Dr Cunningham’s PhD involves an analysis of Ministry of Health data of more than 80,000 people who have used psychiatric services and linking them to the cancer registry and then tracking outcomes. It will also mean interviewing some patients in depth about their experience to get a more personal understanding of how psychiatric problems and cancer intersect.
Cunningham says the Department of Public Health on the Wellington campus is a stimulating place to follow her passion because of its depth of expertise and experience in public health, as is the University of Otago as whole.