Dr Deb Mills, a trailblazer in the field of travel medicine in Australia, has a career story that beautifully intertwines her profound passion for both medicine and travel.
Her journey into this unique specialty is a testament to the extraordinary paths life can lead us down. Dr Mills fondly recalls her early fascination with travel, saying, “When I was 10, my mother took me out of school and got special permission because she wanted to go to New Zealand in the school holidays. From then on, I’ve always loved travel.”
This innate love for exploring new horizons took root within her at a young age, and it continued to grow throughout her life. As she embarked on her medical career, her adventures in the world of travel were still a significant part of her life.
“When I got into medicine, I was doing locum work, and I came back from one of my trips,” she reminisces. It was during one of these trips that her life took an unexpected turn.
“My travel agent said, ‘I’ve got the perfect job for you,'” Dr Mills recalls. Initially hesitant, she relented and decided to explore this new opportunity. Little did she know that this decision would set the course for her pioneering role in travel medicine. “This was in the travel medicine clinic,” she explains, noting that this was a time when such specialised clinics were a rarity. Her willingness to embrace the unexpected opened the door to a career that she now passionately champions.
Pre-travel health consultations: A necessity, not an option
Dr Mills’s extensive experience in travel medicine has positioned her as a staunch advocate for pre-travel health consultations, especially considering the current surge in Australians’ motivation to explore the world. She underscores that Australians can sometimes underestimate the health risks associated with travel due to the country’s robust public healthcare infrastructure.
“We have sewage, we have meat inspectors, we have good fridges for vaccines, we have medications which are reliable,” she explains. However, she cautions that this sense of security does not extend to all corners of the globe. Dr Mills believes that complacency can lead to unnecessary health risks while traveling.
“People just get lulled into this false sense of security,” she says. The reality is that the world outside Australia can be quite different, and travelers might find themselves in situations where they need medical assistance in unfamiliar environments.
She elaborates, “Even in places where medical care is good, try explaining your diarrhea in a different language to someone in Europe. Try being sick in a country where you don’t have your mum or someone to bring you chicken soup.
“Try spending $5,000-$10,000 on a holiday and spend it in the hospital. It’s insane.”
Dr Mills is a strong advocate for proper pre-travel health consultations to mitigate these risks. She emphasises that with the right guidance and precautions, many travel-related health issues can be prevented.
“It just makes no sense at all to me to suffer preventable illnesses,” she says.
She believes that travelers should be proactive about their health before embarking on journeys, ensuring that they have the necessary vaccinations and health advice to stay safe and healthy.
Balancing food tourism and health
As food tourism gains popularity in 2023, travelers are increasingly seeking culinary adventures during their journeys. Dr Mills offers valuable advice on how travelers can strike a balance between indulging in local cuisine and safeguarding their health.
She believes that enjoying local food experiences is an essential part of travel but underscores the importance of doing so wisely.
“You can still eat at markets,” she advises, “but choose busy ones.” Eating at bustling markets is a simple yet effective strategy to reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses.
Additionally, she recommends opting for hot food rather than items like sandwiches. “You have food that’s hot – you don’t have a sandwich, you don’t need sandwiches; we have them here,” she asserts.
By following these food safety rules, travelers can savour local flavours without compromising their health.
Guiding vaccine decisions for safe travel
The importance of vaccinations before overseas travel cannot be overstated, and Dr Mills plays a pivotal role in guiding travelers to make informed vaccine decisions tailored to their destinations and activities. She elucidates the comprehensive approach that travel medicine professionals take when helping travelers prepare for their journeys.
“To guide travelers in making informed vaccine decisions,” she explains, “we need to assess where they’re going, what they’re doing, what their past health has been like, what medications they take regularly or occasionally, what their budget is, and what their risk tolerance is.”
This individualised approach ensures that travelers receive personalised recommendations that align with their specific circumstances.
Dr Mills underscores that seeking vaccine recommendations online can be unreliable, as generalised advice may not consider an individual’s unique health profile or travel plans. She emphasises the significance of consulting with experts in travel medicine.
“You cannot get these recommendations off the internet,” she warns. Instead, she encourages travelers to seek guidance from professionals who possess the expertise to provide tailored recommendations based on a traveler’s unique needs.
“Choice did an article a while ago looking at travel vaccines and found that it was better value for people to go to a travel clinic,” she shares. Such clinics specialise in travel health, ensuring that travelers receive the most up-to-date and relevant advice and vaccinations. Dr Mills believes that travelers should prioritise their health by seeking advice from experts in the field.
Key message for travelers: Preparedness is prudent
As the upcoming busy travel season approaches, Dr Mills has a crucial message for travelers who may lack awareness about travel health precautions. She urges travelers to consider their good fortune in having avoided serious health issues during their journeys thus far. “You’re very lucky that nothing bad has ever happened to you,” she says.
She acknowledges that some travelers may question the necessity of carrying a medical kit or following pre-travel health advice. “People think, ‘Why do I need to take this medical kit? The doctor is just flogging stuff at me,'” she explains.
However, Dr Mills emphasises that preparedness is the key to avoiding unnecessary suffering during travel. “People have evacuated because they didn’t have a diarrhea pill to get them out of trouble,” she notes.
In her view, the cost of obtaining travel vaccines and proper health advice is far less than the cost of dealing with a severe illness abroad.
Dr Mills acknowledges that some individuals may prefer to live on the edge when it comes to travel health, but she encourages travelers to be prudent. She believes that learning from experts and their experiences is a wise choice.
“Bad things happen, and they’re largely preventable,” she asserts. While some may choose to learn from their own experiences, she encourages travelers to learn from the wisdom of those who have specialised knowledge in travel medicine.