opinion: public health needs an image change and more political oomph

I am not yet a full fledged Public Health Professional, but I am a third of the way through becoming one, so I can share the impression I have gotten about our field’s image so far- we’re a little bit confused. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, because we still do amazing work and will continue to be a groundbreaking and essential field. No the confusion comes from our, for lack of a better term, “brand name”- what does Public Health mean now, here in the 21st Century? I think most all of the faculty and students here at SPH could give you our thoughts on this question, but the answers would not all be the same. That is also perfectly ok- public health means different things to us, it means different things based on the work we currently do and  what brought us to SPH in the first place. The problem is that when we try to talk about public health to the outside world, different definitions and  goals can lead to dysfunction.

Most of the time when I describe public health to individuals outside of the community, I give  a simplified description of  epidemiology, even though that’s not even my program, because that definition is easiest for laypeople  to understand and the area of public health that has been most visible to America for the past 50-100 years. And I usually feel bad about it, because it does a disservice to Epidemiology, a complex and fascinating field,  and my wonderful program Health Behavior and Health Education,and it does a disservice to everyone else in Public Health.

Public health is much broader than the spread of disease only, and quite honestly, epidemiology as everyone has known it is becoming less of a pressing focus in the United States. Sure we still have whooping cough, measles and other contagious illness that are essential to focus on, but more than anything, Americans today suffer from chronic conditions that are not contagious. So other facets of the Public Health field have to step up. We have to show everyone its importance and redefine public health in America in the process. A tall order.

On the one hand, we need the recognition, understanding and respect of our new image by of the wider community, but more crucially, we need funding. It seems callous to point out money in the face of the good and worthy work that we do, but if we don’t get funding we don’t get things done. End of story.

From what I gather, the solution to these problems is to A. have an agreed upon definition of public health that represents our goals and our multifaceted discipline B. evaluate evaluate evaluate our programs and practices to see if they really are worth the money being spent on them and C. try to get more political. I know that there are plenty of great people working in the nation’s capital and elsewhere to get public health the recognition it needs, but it’s not making as much of a splash as it could be, and we certainly don’t have name recognition of any champions of public health. As far as I can see the best name recognition we currently have is the CDC, and even they don’t have the same amount of clout as say, the Pentagon or the FTC. (digressing into my political views, it’s unsurprising to me that Americans pay more attention to war and money than health)

I plan on using at least a small portion of my career and energies into talking the ears off of anyone who expresses interest in public health and its potential image change and its need for a greater spotlight and influence. We have a lot to give, we just need the push to get us there.

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