Building the Public Health Workforce: Considerations for the Future Workforce at Your State Health Department

June 21, 2022 | Wendy E. Braund, Elizabeth Cuervo Tilson, Donna Grande

Close-up of the left shoulder of a doctor in a white lab coat, their right hand is visible, holding their stethoscopeThe past two years living and working in a pandemic have taught us many lessons and highlighted key needs for the future. One critical lesson is the importance of preparedness; others include the importance of collaboration and communication.

Were your health departments prepared to address the communication needs between marginalized communities and your local hospital or health providers? Did you feel you were well-staffed to communicate and collaborate effectively with health systems in your catchment area?

The American College of Preventive Medicine (ACPM) recommends that health departments consider bringing a board-certified preventive medicine physician on staff or to have one available to assist with preparedness and population health interventions.

Many physicians who work at a health department have board certification in a primary care specialty (e.g., family medicine, pediatrics, internal medicine). While these specialists possess excellent experience for providing clinical care, they may be missing important skills and knowledge for public health or population health needs. To fully realize potential impact and health improvements, public health jurisdictions need experienced physicians who can work directly with populations; physicians with training in preventive medicine come with the requisite expertise and competencies to add value.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of having in-house skills to respond to worldwide public health emergency. Experience and training in public health are essential in working with the public, media, elected officials, and community leaders to craft and implement policies and procedures to protect the public’s health. Additionally, it is important to have specific clinical skills to interface with and understand hospitals or health systems to best coordinate and communicate important public health measures and services.

A preventive medicine specialist has training in surveillance, outbreak response, medical countermeasures, and other issues related to responding appropriately and effectively to epidemics and pandemics. Many preventive medicine physicians have experience in dealing with less common infectious diseases, such as polio, Ebola, or measles, and other childhood diseases. By training, they can identify risks and issue isolation or quarantine orders. Importantly, they are trained to work with Boards of Health—however they are defined—to create consensus on these issues.

Preventive medicine physicians also understand the importance of chronic diseases in the population’s health. They receive specific, individual intervention training to prevent or mitigate the impact of chronic diseases such as cardiac and vascular diseases, pulmonary diseases, and cancer. Also, important to the public health world, they understand community wide interventions, social media campaigns, and how to work with community-based organizations and other partners to prevent chronic diseases.

Generally, physicians in other specialties are neither trained in epidemiology and the assessment of overall community health and risks to the extent preventive medicine physicians are, nor how to interpret data, including research data on how to intervene to prevent or mitigate diseases. Preventive medicine physicians understand how to interpret disease burden, related risk factors, and other issues important to protecting health. Additionally, racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic disparities in health are significant issues in population health. Preventive medicine physicians are trained to understand these issues and help intervene to help implement Health in All Policies and health equity.

Finally, one of the most important roles preventive medicine physicians are trained and play is that of chief health spokesperson interfacing with the media. They understand the need for and ways to bring competing groups together to address health issues. These groups can be significantly disparate, and they include health-based organizations such as the American Heart, Lung or Cancer societies, religious organizations, businesses, hospitals, government entities, and others.

As you prepare for the year ahead and look back on the lessons learned these past two years, we hope you will consider adding an additional asset to your staffing—a preventive medicine physician to help you advance your ambitious public health agenda.

For more information, visit the ACPM website.