A colleague and I were recently discussing “the good ole days” over lunch. We reminisced about the neighborhoods we grew up in, the influence of our families and friends, and how we dodged poverty, violence, and isolation. When I look back, my years in college were probably the most significant period of personal growth, hard work, and good times. I can also remember times of confusion and indecision—particularly as I struggled to declare a major. I had always been interested in a health career. During high school, I was exposed to physicians, nurses, physical therapists, and pharmacists, and decided I would become a physician. However, after receiving a C- in my freshman chemistry class, I knew the “pre-med” curriculum was not for me. During my junior year, I took a course in medical anthropology and was introduced to public health by my professor who was also a physician. I learned that “health” was determined by so much more than the provision of health care services. It was during my senior year in college that I decided to pursue a graduate degree in public health, and the rest (as they say) is history.
These are exciting and trying times for public health. Not unlike other sectors, we are expected to do more with less to overcome both longstanding and emerging health threats.
According to the Association of Schools of Public Health (ASPH), by 2020, the nation will be facing a shortfall of more than 250,000 public health workers. They further estimate that, over the coming decade, schools of public health would have to train three times the current number of graduates to meet projected needs.
Even though we live in a nation with the most technologically advanced health care system in the world, not all Americans are benefiting from these advances.
In light of the growing diversity of the U.S., we need a workforce trained to develop, implement, and evaluate public health policies and programs that accommodate differences in culture and health-related behaviors; to engage communities in the process of public health practice and research; and to pursue health equity. Language services are needed to assist persons with limited proficiency in English, and there are many who need help navigating the health care system. Health literacy, public health informatics, social media, and global collaborations to reduce health threats also contribute to eliminating health disparities and point to skills needed by the next generation of public health workers.
Last September (2011), our office launched the “National Undergraduate Summer Public Health Program” to contribute to the pipeline of public health workers. The goal of the program is to expose undergraduates interested in health disparities to public health as a career option. Over 2700 students from all over the country applied for 200 slots. At the end of an 8 week practicum in a public health setting, the students gathered at CDC to learn about the domestic and global work of the agency. Their energy, enthusiasm, and curiosity filled the hallways. They explored career options, and talked with CDC scientists about their pathways to public health.
They made friends and established connections with seasoned public health workers and researchers. All indications are that the majority of the students walked away from this summer public health experience energized and more informed about the difference they can make in public health and in eliminating health disparities.
Cesar Chavez –Mexican American farm worker, labor leader, and civil rights activist– once said, “We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community… Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.” What else can we do to ensure a generation of public health workers with the skills needed to end health disparities?