The New Public Health Generation: I just got my MPH, now what?

In May 2017 I added six letters to my name, “MPH, CPH” to show that I have the degree and the certifiable core skills required to join the public health workforce. Armed with my new assorted alphabet, I searched for fellowship opportunities that would expand my skills and perspective beyond my education experience. Ultimately, I accepted the ASPPH Philanthropy Fellowship at the de Beaumont Foundation. I have been on the job for two months. Every single day of these two months, there has been an article, experience, project, or meeting that made me think “Why didn’t I learn this at school??”

I spent the second week of my fellowship at the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) annual meeting. During this week, I quickly discovered that public health departments are the most fundamental infrastructure that protects the nation’s health. As a recent MPH graduate, this conference should have been my comfort zone. However, I found myself immersed in discussions about governmental functions, budgets, terms, processes, all of which I had never heard before. I realized that, although I studied public health, my knowledge and experience of public health departments was shockingly limited. I have never stepped foot in a public health department or even considered applying for a job in a health department. I began questioning whether an MPH degree adequately prepares graduates for the governmental public health workforce.

Throughout NACCHO Annual, I was presented with two frameworks that encapsulate the future and purpose of public health departments: Chief Health Strategist and Public Health 3.0.  Chief Health Strategists are health departments that convene hospitals, foundations, community-based organizations, and government leaders to strategically align policy, funds, and programs, in order to create healthy populations and environments. Similarly, Public Health 3.0 describes the responsibility of 21st century public health to make environmental, policy, and system changes that improve population health. It also challenges public health to collaborate across sectors, with business professionals and other government departments. These ideas were aimed at the workforce that was represented at NACCHO, preparing and persuading them to shift their local departments towards this next phase of public health work. Sitting in the audience, I was inspired by these visions for the future of public health.

With a behavioral science and health education concentration, I was trained to plan, implement, and evaluate programs based on behavioral change theories at Saint Louis University College for Public Health and Social Justice. And they trained me well! However, my education did little to prepare me to work in a public health department or understand the cross-cutting role of Chief Health Strategist. This is a problem for the public health workforce. The undergraduate and graduate degrees in public health have drastically grown in popularity, with over 20,000 graduates in 2016, of which less than 1 of 10 intended to pursue a medical degree. With an aging workforce, these graduates will soon be in higher demand. However, the new generation of workers will not be prepared to take on future challenges unless they are trained to work broadly in governmental public health and specifically under the visions like Public Health 3.0.

At NACCHO Annual I met public health officials who were worried about the opioid crisis, vaccination rates, and asthma incidence in their jurisdictions. They should also be worried about the students sitting in public health schools today, who are not learning how to be Chief Health Strategists or work in their departments. As one of the newest members to the public health workforce, I know the new generation of public health workers is motivated to transform our field and the health of our nation, but only if the transfer of knowledge and articulation of our mission reaches us where we are: in school.

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This year I am blogging about my experience as a fellow and what it means for the millennial generation to join and change the public health landscape. I will grapple with the changing public health workforce, interview leaders in and out of the field, and discuss the future of public health as my generation sees it. Follow along!