Catherine Heffernan – the public health sociologist
Jane McGuire

Catherine Heffernan – the public health sociologist

Catherine Dunningham the public health sociologist

First published date July 27 2015 Amended date March 24 2016

As I sit down to interview Catherine Dunningham, I really don’t know what to expect. A principle advisor in the public health sector with a doctorate in medical sociology from Oxford, I don’t think the word expert is strong enough to describe this interviewee. Recommended by The British Sociological Association, as we talk, I’m struck by Catherine’s passion for what she does. Working on early year’s immunisation and vaccination services in London, Catherine spends her days using sociology to make life saving decisions for the safe keeping of children. Proving that a sociology course and a lot of hard work really can take you anywhere, this is one expert who has left me in awe.


So Catherine, how did you get here? Were you always interested in sociology?

Well actually no, I went to university to study English Literature and in the first year you had to take four courses and one of the options was sociology. I ended up really enjoying the social theory and methodology, so ended up doing it as a joint honours.

I did a doctorate in medical sociology at Oxford. Then I did my post doctorate and looked into public health research – I was still hell bent on being an academic, but started thinking about my future and how it wasn’t earning me a whole lot of money.

Somebody suggested public health and at the time I thought you had to be a medic to do it, but they counted my doctorate and I became a registrar. I then qualified and became a consultant, was Director of Public Health for a while before taking up my current post which is Principal Advisor for commissioning early years immunisation and vaccination services.


Wow, that’s quite the journey! How does your sociology background help you in your day to day work?

People often think sociology is about sitting around talking about social theory but it’s not, it’s really vigorous in terms of the methodologies – that’s what I use most in my work today. It’s been really useful and has given me a huge understanding of social inequalities, which is a massive part of the health services at the moment.

For example after the chaos that was caused by the false MMR leak, we still have groups in London who refuse to have the MMR. So using sociology we try to understand why they have that fear and how we can best reach them. It’s not all about having services and people coming to use them, it’s about bringing the vaccines to the people.

Another example is that people always go on about how schools are the best way to deliver vaccinations, but using sociology I can look and say well actually figures suggest over 25% of girls are not reached through schools for HPV. What about the children who are home schooled or are truant or homeless?

I always fall back on the idea of, if people know something is there and good for them, but they’re not doing it, what is stopping them? And that’s a very sociological question. It’s very much looking at how we can make it easier, how we can change the system or change cultural beliefs.


What is your biggest challenge then?

Coming across opposition really – some local authorities are really quick to point the finger and say our rates are 95% for our childhood vaccination programme, what are you doing about it? They don’t see the bigger picture that it’s not me in my office that gets the rates up, it’s everybody working together.

It can also be hard to convince somebody to invest in something where they won’t see results for a few years, like getting children to eat healthily that will reduce obesity levels eventually.

Another thing is that I am always on call, so if there is an outbreak it will be all hands on deck.  I was quite lucky that I was on maternity leave when Ebola happened. But when it happens, you have to deal with it there and then, there’s no putting it off ‘til Monday morning which can be pretty challenging.


Thinking back to when you first started studying sociology, what do you think is the most difficult thing to get your head around?

At first you hear people saying, ‘Oh sociology that’s just common sense!’ but I remember one of the first subjects was learning about Marx, Webber and Durkheim and it was all very philosophical and daunting. It wasn’t until second year when you start doing research that it starts to make sense; having a theory and testing it or gathering evidence and making a theory.

It taught me to challenge what we consider fact. For example people talk about the traditional family, but when you look at historical sociology you see that actually there is no such thing as traditional sociology. Family changes throughout history in accordance to what society needs and it gives you a completely different perspective or understanding of cultures and why people think like they do.


What would you say to yourself now, aged 18 studying sociology at university?

Back then I probably thought all I wanted to do was party, so I would probably say, ‘Don’t worry, what you are reading is actually going into your head and this will be really useful to you!’ I think sociology is one of those subjects, like psychology and English that gives you general skills for life, transferable skills.


Good answer!


If you are interested in following in Dr Catherine Dunningham’s footsteps, why not take a look at the different sociology courses listed on our site and get started. Remember that everyone was a beginner once and it’s never too late to start learning!