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Leading Student Health through a pandemic

Thursday 18 June 2020 11:45pm

MargaretPerley-image
Head of Student Health Services Margaret Perley. Photo: Sharron Bennett.

Student Health Head Margaret Perley has a simple message about the COVID-19 pandemic: It isn’t over.

As the University returns to regular operations and departments reflect on their response to the emergency, Student Health remains on high alert.

“We're still very vigilant. We're still very concerned. Everyone in the community thinks we’re back to normal but we’re not. COVID could arrive tomorrow.

"We're still very vigilant. We're still very concerned. Everyone in the community thinks we’re back to normal but we’re not. COVID could arrive tomorrow."

“We've got to be really strict on our border control and we can't afford to loosen up due to political pressure. All you’ve got to have is a couple of people infected and it spreads.”

Ms Perley’s words carry extra weight when you consider she was interviewed before New Zealand had its first new two cases after a 24-day period with no new infections.

She was appointed Head of Student Health Services in January, just before the pandemic hit New Zealand, and was pivotal in helping shape the University’s daily operations as New Zealand went into lockdown.

That may seem like a baptism of fire, but she says she was accustomed to the demands of the role having been Acting Director of Student Health since 2018.

In terms of the pandemic, health professionals had been keeping a watching brief on COVID-19 well before it entered the everyday consciousness of New Zealanders.

“We were ahead of the rest of the University because we were watching it overseas from a health perspective. And we were realising that this was going to be a problem.”

Student Health was active early, becoming involved in discussions with the University’s Infectious Control Planning Group even before the Incident Management Team was convened to lead the wider University response.

As the emergency escalated in New Zealand, a rising tide of Ministry of Health and WHO advice had to be interpreted, adapted for Otago’s needs and implemented. Daily updates were sent out to keep the University community up to speed with the latest information.

“I was involved with a group of people doing that work. We relied a lot on Public Health, Andrew Ferguson and Professor Philip Hill. We were all working together to work out: How does this impact on Otago?

"We’ve got an amazing team here and they adapted day by day. Sometimes we brought changes in overnight."

“I was the voice for practical health advice. It was challenging, but it's so essential you do that. Because lack of information leads to speculation and gossip.”

At the Student Health clinic in Albany Street, patient screening and PPE for staff were introduced when New Zealand went into Level 2.

The situation was complicated by a mumps outbreak among students. Staff were split into teams which worked on different days in case any individual team members got infected. There were some very long days.

“We’ve got an amazing team here and they adapted day by day. Sometimes we brought changes in overnight.”

At Level 3 lockdown, the doors of the clinic were shut but Student Health’s service continued.

Telehealth ‘virtual’ consultations over Zoom or phone were available to Otago students no matter where they were in New Zealand.

Ms Perley says the system worked very well and Student Health will continue to provide telehealth consultations.

The service relied on support from the University’s ITS department and Ms Perley says that is just one example of how the University came together as a unit to meet each challenge.

“Everyone now fully appreciates how we work well together as a team. And I think those relationships are here to stay.”

A former nurse and health manager, Ms Perley joined Student Health as Operations Manager in 2006.

She was born in Canterbury and moved to Dunedin in 1987: “I do support Canterbury sports teams – unless, of course, Otago is playing!”

"The feeling of being unable to take a sick day due to workload is being refocused to think about the possibility of infecting others if I come to work or go to a lecture. And I just hope it continues. It’s so important that we don't lose those gains."

Both her children attended the University of Otago but have now left Dunedin. In her spare time, she enjoys board games and cards – many holidays are spent taking part in bridge tournaments – and her mini lop rabbit Loki, who has the run of the house, keeps her on her toes.

A key aim in her role at Student Health is to improve the general wellbeing of students: educating them on how to get well and stay well. A good starting point for this has been the Health Yourself campaign.

“I would like to see Student Health be able to focus more on prevention and health education.

“Eventually, it would be great to see the development of a wellbeing precinct within the University where services like Unipol, Student Health, Physio and Occupational Health and Safety could work side by side to provide holistic care and activities to enhance wellbeing for students and staff.”

Within Student Health this wellness focus is modelled by basing the core workplace values on Manaakitanga where all staff have a responsibility to themselves and each other.

If there is a silver lining to the emergency, it is the increase in health literacy.

“COVID-19 has had some positive impacts on the wider University community. There is a greater understanding of health terminology and hygiene and we are all working together towards changing to a healthier culture around illness. The feeling of being unable to take a sick day due to workload is being refocused to think about the possibility of infecting others if I come to work or go to a lecture.

“And I just hope it continues. It’s so important that we don't lose those gains.”

Story by Sean Flaherty (Communications Adviser, Projects).