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Moving Forward With Workforce Development Research in Public Health

Summerfelt, Wm. Thomas PhD; Tilson, Hugh H. MD, DrPH; Crawford, Carol A. Gotway PhD

Journal of Public Health Management and Practice: November 2009 - Volume 15 - Issue 6 - p S1–S2
doi: 10.1097/PHH.0b013e3181c5c050

Currently the Vice President of Research for Advocate Health Care in Chicago, Illinois. He was the former Executive Director of the Center for Health and the Social Sciences at The University of Chicago. (Summerfelt)

Adjunct Professor of Public Health Leadership, Epidemiology, and Health Policy. UNC School of Public Health, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Tilson)

Science Officer, Office of Workforce and Career Development, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia. (Crawford)

Corresponding Author: Wm. Thomas Summerfelt, PhD, 205 W Touhy Ave, Park Ridge, IL 60068 (

Disclaimer: The findings and conclusions in this report are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

We are proud to have had the opportunity to bring this supplemental issue to fruition. It represents directly the culmination of months of planning; an interactive and lively conference; and the hard work of many. The idea of bringing select social science perspectives and tools into the discussion of public health workforce (PHW) began with a conversation between David Meltzer of the University of Chicago (UC) and Carol Crawford of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The conversation grew into a joint CDC/UC working group charged with identifying a small cadre of social scientists whose ideas or methodologies might hold promise for application to PHW issues with the intent of bringing these social scientists together with some PHW leaders in a conference format.

The significance of PHW research has increased as the role of public health in the United States has expanded in scope and sophistication.1,2 Emerging infectious diseases (eg, HIV/AIDS, SARS, swine flu); health epidemics (eg, obesity, diabetes); the persistence of racial and ethnic health disparities (eg, breast health, infant/fetal mortality, prostate cancer); terrorism and bioterrorism (eg, anthrax scare, events of September 11, 2001); and natural disasters (eg, 2004 tsunami, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, California forest fires) have redefined and heightened the importance of the role of public health in both citizen health and national security. As the role of public health has changed, the necessary call to understand and develop a workforce that is adequate in size and capable in skills has come and researchers have struggled to provide answers. Existing literature depicts a wide range of challenges to developing a research agenda in PHW such as understanding succession planning for an aging workforce, consensual definition of the PHW, enumerating the PHW, scope of duties of the PHW, public or private sponsorship, and implications of the responsive nature of the role of public health.3,4

It is our intention that the collection of works in this supplement will both build upon the foundation of work already done in PHW as described in Crawford et al's contribution and energize the PHW field to pursue resolution to the myriad of issues that have prevented a more robust development of the PHW. The major impetus for this supplement was to bring new approaches that might have the potential to circumvent some of the identified barriers. Starr's contribution provides a useful historical framing of identifying public health as a profession while others (eg, Moore, Meltzer, and Brenner and Siu) present insight into some of the current barriers in the development of PHW (eg, enumeration, using research to develop a profession, and advocating for a profession, respectively). Others provide methodologies or approaches that have potential application for PHW research (eg, Birch et al, Roy et al, LaLonde, and Asch et al). Resnick et al discuss environmental health while Schneider offers a unique perspective on how to recruit and inspire youth to careers in health and science. Thacker finishes the supplement with some indications of next steps. We also solicited experts to comment on each of the major articles specifically discussing the applicability and implications for PHW research, which provide extra insight and direction for the field.

While challenges face investigators in PHW research, we have great optimism that significant contributions in understanding the development of the PHW will help to build the much needed public health infrastructure for a healthier nation. Our optimism stems from the remarkable progress already realized in the field coupled with the promise of more and still stronger methods for research in PHW. It is our sincerest hope that this collection of works will help to inspire, energize, and motivate the current and the next generation of researchers to embark on this journey and discover resolutions to the issues plaguing PHW.

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1. Gebbie KM, Rosenstock L, Hernandez LM, eds. Who Will Keep the Public Healthy? Educating Public Health Administrators for the 21st Century. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences; 2003:182.
2. Committee on Assuring the Health of the Public in the 21st Century/Board on Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. The Future of the Public's Health in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences; 2003:479.
3. Potter MA, Gebbie KM, Tilson H. The public health workforce. In: Novick LF, Morrow CB, Mays GP, eds. Public Health Administration Principles for Population-Based Management. 2nd ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett; 2007:225–260.
4. Department of Health and Human Services. The Public Health Workforce: An Agenda for the 21st Century: A Report of the Public Health Functions Project. Washington, DC: Dept of Health and Human Services; 1997:69. Accessed June 29, 2009.
© 2009 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.