27 October 2015

Public health expert Dr Jane Thomason has spent over 30 years working on health and development programs across the Asia-Pacific region; 16 of them as Chief Executive Officer of JTA International, the company she founded in 1999.

The company’s string of successful projects has included responses to the Bali bombings and Banda Aceh Tsunami; health impact assessments for mining operations in Mongolia and elsewhere; supporting improvements in rural health services in Papua New Guinea; and, closer to home, establishing an evidence based home visiting program to improve health outcomes for young mothers and their infants in indigenous communities.

What took you down the public health route?

When I was 15 my mother took me on a study tour of Indonesia with Community Aid Abroad. I was inspired by the work of an Australian volunteer called Mary Johnson who’d been working in central Java with poor communities for about 14 years.

I developed this youthful ambition that I wanted to go and do that; it was really from that age that I had a desire to go and work in developing countries and do something about intractable poverty.

I’ve had a bit of a circular route, as one does. I first thought that I needed to do what Mary had done so I did social work and community development and went as a volunteer to Indonesia.

One of the things that experience taught me was that youthful ambition and desire to lend a helping hand wasn’t actually that valuable. So, I came back to Australia and did a Master’s degree in public health.

You returned home after working 15 years in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and The Philippines and held leadership positions with Queensland Health before starting JTA. How did the company come into being?

In a way, it was started by accident. I had made a decision to come back to Australia because my son was ready to start school.

I got a job as director of Women’s Health and shortly afterwards was transferred over to run the Royal Children’s Hospital but all the time I was doing that work I missed the development work. It was hard to feel a real sense of accomplishment or of touching people’s lives, so I was looking for a way to still live in Australia and continue the international work. One day there was an advertisement for a $50 million rural health services program in PNG and I just thought, ‘I could really do that’.

I knew I couldn’t win a $50 million tender, so I rang companies who could bid on it and said, ‘I’ll put together the team. We can win this job. I’ll run the job, but I want to do it as a joint venture.’

The whole motivation behind this company hasn’t been a business motivation; it’s been a vehicle for doing the work. The fact that this business grew behind it was completely unanticipated.

What did your stints in corporate health management at Queensland Health teach you?

There were massive benefits. Because I’d worked overseas for 15 years, I hadn’t had much contact with the Australian healthcare system. Understanding how the Australian health systems works, industrial relations, how tertiary hospitals in a well-functioning system work and what good practice looks like – that’s something that’s been incredibly helpful to me ever since, and people respect that I bring that experience.

You’ve served on the Foreign Minister’s Aid Advisory Council and committees for Red Cross Australia and the World Health Organisation, as well as lecturing at university. How have you juggled it all?

I only ever wanted to do two things. I wanted to be the best mother to my children that I could be, and I wanted to have a meaningful and successful career. I don’t have hobbies or social life, and I’m happy about that because my work is so interesting, and my children are so interesting as well.

I found being on the committees enhances the other work I’m doing – it all feeds into my understanding of how things work and my ability to help other people make things better or different. If I’ve been invited to serve, then I’ve always wanted to fit it in because I think the experience I bring from Australia and elsewhere is helpful to those institutions. I also take away important lessons that will help me somewhere else.

You sold JTA International to international health consultancy Abt Associates three years ago and will finish up as its CEO next year. Where to next?

I’m not finished yet! I was really lucky to sell to a mission driven company who share the same values, so I will keep doing technical work through them. For example, through Abt, I have recently been appointed to the Devex Impact Strategic Advisory Council which is a group of high-level global development organisation principals and private business leaders representing key industry sectors who meet to lead global discussion on socially responsible development in emerging market regions. I hope to continue my work on a large poverty reduction program in Indonesia.

I’ll also be asking where the opportunities are in Australia and globally where my experience and advice could be useful.

I’d like to continue my work on the global strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health aimed at ending preventable deaths. PNG, which is five kilometres away from us, has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. To find ways to do something about that … I would like that.

I’ve also been turning my attention increasingly to mentoring young women and developing young women as leaders, and I’d like to do more of that on a bigger scale.

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