The future of public health: trends, issues and outliers
Written by Frederick Johnson
|From tracking trends in disease and illness to organizing efforts that promote a longer and higher quality of life, individuals working within public health have large goals that deal very specifically with individual people.|
One of the most fascinating aspects of public health is the ways in which it changes over time. The concerns of the early part of the 20th century are quite dissimilar to the concerns of the 21st, but the goals of those studying and working in the field are the same: better health for more people. Many of the challenges facing public health workers are substantial. Here is a look at the trends and issues facing today’s public health worker, from dealing with budget cuts to continuing to add to their education.
One aspect of public health that is markedly different than it was even ten years ago is that of surveillance. Electronic data collection systems, the analytic muscle of big data, the ability of an interdisciplinary approach — all this has made public health surveillance more extensive and more complex, and while it may be tempting to believe that our technological prowess can mitigate health threats, human expertise is still essential in the diagnosis of disease, data interpretation, communication and more to ensure that the public’s health is protected. To that end, may disciplines must come together in surveillance, including:
The economic downturn of 2008 coupled with budgetary showdowns and shutdowns in Congress have created a public health system that has suffered extensively from cuts. As a result, most organizations within the public health sector find themselves in a transition time that looks to remain. State and federal budget cuts affect everything from the implementation of laws that affect public health to the accreditation of public health agencies. Many public health positions have been eliminated entirely due to budgetary constraints, so many public health workers find themselves working in nontraditional settings outside government.
Numerous workforce shortages exist and look to continue, both due to budgetary pressures and waning involvement. Areas that deal with surveillance, nursing, lab work, environmental health and the like all need more workers. In fact, The Association of Schools of Public Health predicts that approximately 250,000 more public health workers will need to enter the field by 2020 to maintain current rates of public health officials.
As technology continues to evolve at an almost breathless pace, the educational needs of public health workers evolve, too. From staying abreast of surveillance trends to utilizing new software to gather, analyze and interpret data, technology is seeing a regular uptick in a need for continuing education within the entire public health sector.
It isn’t just technology’s advance that makes ongoing education so vital for public health. Research continually changes what we know about medicine, and public health officials need to keep up with it. Additionally, as laws change, enforcement shifts as well. Ongoing education is a necessary and difficult-to-meet challenge both right now and in the future.
Without a properly understood, functioning and executed infrastructure, public health officials cannot hope to deal with the vast health needs at the national, state and local levels. Both acute and ongoing threats must constantly be evaluated and responded to. Infrastructure is how the work of public health gets accomplished. Due mostly to budgetary cuts, the infrastructure of the United States’ public health system is under duress. The need for a well-qualified, educated and capable workforce, the necessity of an up-to-date data gathering and analyzing system and operational agencies that assess public health needs and provide solutions are all part of what makes the public health system run, and these three areas are in transition, or in danger of being so underfunded that they are effectively eliminated.
Public Health is an area of ongoing need whose struggles to meet those needs are different than those of days past. From the stress budget cuts place on workforces and infrastructure to the continual demands that technology places on educational needs, the future of public health will need to become more flexible and thrifty, especially if it hopes to remain vital.
About the Author: Frederick Johnson is a contributing writer and public health administrator in a high-need community.