Time to Get to Work(force): Practical Steps to Building a Stronger, More Sustainable Public Health Workforce

December 14, 2015|3:13 p.m.| Edward L. Hunter

The public health workforce has been under pressure for the better part of a decade from budget cuts, a rapidly changing healthcare landscape, epidemics, and rising expectations to address key determinants of health. As a result, public health professionals have had to do more with less to protect the health of more than 300 million Americans.

These challenges, as well as new data from the Public Health Workforce Interests and Needs Survey (PH WINS), are described in my editorial in the recent Journal of Public Health Management and Practice supplement. My colleague, Brian Castrucci, wrote a recent blog post on PH WINS that outlines how this unique data set has provided us with important new insights into the workforce – for the first time, based on direct responses from frontline professionals themselves.

As much as these new findings add to our understanding, studying our workforce challenges isn’t enough. It’s time to get to work on positive solutions.

We are now at a pivotal moment. With public health budgets hopefully stabilizing after losses associated with the great recession, it is time to focus on rebuilding and retooling the workforce to match the needs of the future. We need institutions that move forward, adapt, and transform to meet new needs. We need a workforce with technical skills, but one that that can also work in partnership and be politically savvy, innovative, and adaptive.

State and local public health have always been considered the boots on the ground in protecting our health – and now it’s time for a significant rebooting.

One major area of concern – especially as we raise the expectations of what public health can and should do – is that public health workers are planning to retire or transition to other jobs in unprecedented numbers (see these three journal articles for an extensive look at this factor: 1, 2, 3). Thirty-eight percent tell us they will leave governmental public health by 2020.

Consequently, we face enormous challenges in maintaining continuity in core capacities as experience, leadership, and skills are lost. At the same time, it is our opportunity to reboot by elevating existing talent, identifying under-represented skill sets, and diversifying – both in terms of who sits at the table and what they bring to it.

There is much to be done – which is why the de Beaumont Foundation has made a major commitment to taking action based on what we have learned in PH WINS.  

Our commitment is reflected in our support of the Public Health Workforce Consortium, which brings together a broad cross-section of the public health community to address cross-cutting training needs, and in our efforts develop new training programs in management and finance (a key skills gap identified in PH WINS).

Helping transform the practice of public health is the principal focus of the de Beaumont Foundation, and we are committed to supporting strategies to better equip governmental public health agencies and their leaders to address these challenges. PH WINS was developed as part of this focus, as are our other initiatives in workforce and infrastructure development.

More immediately, the de Beaumont Foundation Board recently approved a significant partnership with ASTHO to address workforce policies and practice. This new initiative, "PH WINS Research to Action," builds on the findings to meet the training and development needs of the public health workforce.

The talent and commitment of those at the frontlines of public health are critical assets in improving our nation’s health. In recent decades, this workforce has delivered dramatic improvement in health and life expectancy, enabling improved quality of life and economic prosperity. Empowered with new tools and approaches, public health agencies are poised for even greater impact – but they must address the workforce challenges that could undermine their success.

Edward Hunter

Edward L. Hunter joined the de Beaumont Foundation as president and chief executive officer in February 2015. Hunter has had a long and distinguished career in public health, most recently having served as director of CDC's Washington office. As a principal CDC spokesperson to Congress, the administration, and public health organizations, Hunter was a leading voice for the nation’s preeminent public health and scientific research programs.