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Not So Strange Bedfellows: How Practice and Academia Together Will Ensure the Future of the Public Health Workforce

Dwelle, Terry L. MD, MPHTM, CPH; Halverson, Paul K. DrPH, FACHE; Petersen, Donna J. ScD, MHS, CPH

Journal of Public Health Management and Practice: November/December 2015 - Volume 21 - Issue - p S11–S12
doi: 10.1097/PHH.0000000000000293

This commentary describes academic and practice partnerships for the future of the public health workforce.

North Dakota Department of Health, Bismarck (Dr Dwelle); Fairbanks School of Public Health, Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (Dr Halverson); and University of South Florida, Tampa (Dr Petersen).

Correspondence: Terry L. Dwelle, MD, MPHTM, North Dakota Department of Health, 600 E Blvd Ave, Bismarck, ND 58505 (

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

In the fall of 2011, anticipating the 100th anniversary of the 1915 Welch-Rose report,1 the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health convened a special task force. In addition to academics from Council on Education for Public Health accredited schools and programs, the task force included representatives from major public health organizations, including the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, the National Association of County & City Health Officials, and the American Public Health Association; private sector foundations; sister health professions organizations; undergraduate programs; the Association of American Colleges and Universities; the League for Innovation in the Community College; and the Council on Education for Public Health. Called, “Framing the Future: The Second Hundred Years of Education in Public Health,” the task force set about to reenvision the spectrum of 21st-century education in public health. Expert panels were created to consider opportunities in undergraduate education at the 2- and 4-year levels, the MPH, the DrPH, and related professional degree programs, including but not limited to those in health. Nearly finished with its work in the fall of 2013, the task force responded to an opportunity to engage with its practice partners on a final expert panel around workforce development.

Co-chaired by leaders both in practice and in academia, the expert panel affirmed the critical nature of workforce development in our field—for those with and without public health training seeking professional development. From the outset, the group recognized the importance of strong partnerships between academia and practice in all aspects of the work and life of each, recognizing that partnerships built on greater breadth and depth of involvement would naturally be more attuned to and respectful of the ongoing training needs of the workforce.

The 2014 Public Health Workforce Interests and Needs Survey (PH WINS) of more than 10 000 state health agency employees was the first nationally representative survey of state public health workforce interests and needs and confirmed the major recommendations of the expert panel report. The survey revealed that few in the public health practice workforce held degrees from public health schools and programs (only 13% had earned an MPH, 1% had a public health doctoral degree). Survey respondents expressed a high degree of commitment to their jobs as evidenced by their longevity (on average, employees had spent 11.3 years in the state health agency, with 74% planning to continue working for the agency). Respondents expressed high job satisfaction, with only 21% reporting dissatisfaction with their jobs. Interestingly, there was strong concordance between the expert panel curricular content considerations and responses regarding practice competencies and skills. In the content area of informatics and data analysis, 96%, 78%, and 70% of respondents, respectively, indicated that gathering reliable information, interpreting public health data and finding evidence of public health efforts that work were somewhat or very important.2 Seventy-seven percent of respondents said that addressing the needs of diverse populations in a culturally sensitive way (expert panel content area of diversity and cultural proficiency) was somewhat or very important in everyday public health practice. Anticipating and managing changes in public health practice (somewhat or very important to 84% and 89% of respondents, respectively) underscore the need for practice curricula in adaptive competencies and skills.2 Communicating ideas or information to varied population groups in ways they understand and effectively utilizing techniques that persuade changes at the community level were important to 92% and 91% of respondents, respectively. Sixty-seven percent of respondents rated collaborating with diverse communities to identify and solve health problems as somewhat or very important, whereas 86% and 78%, respectively, found that engaging staff within the health department and partners outside the agency to collaborate on projects was somewhat or very important.

Of perhaps most importance in support of the recommendations of the expert panel were findings from the survey regarding partnerships between state health departments and public health academic institutions. When respondents were asked whether they had worked with the public health academic community, only 27% responded affirmatively. However, when asked whether those who had worked with their academic partners found it helpful, all but 8% responded positively (46% indicated somewhat helpful, and 47% reported very helpful). It was also encouraging to the academic community to learn from PH WINS that most respondents had access to continuing education and training. Ninety-two percent indicated they were allowed to use work hours for training, 80% had access to on-site training, 77% had travel and registration fees covered for off-site training, and 59% had education and training included in their performance reviews.

It is more than evident, in 2015, that the second hundred years of education in public health must include a robust and sustained commitment to the ongoing professional development needs of the workforce. Although the Framing the Future Task Force directed much of the responsibility for education in public health to academic institutions, our ultimate goal—to improve the public's health—cannot be achieved without the practice community sharing in the responsibility. Champions within and without, supporting ongoing worker development, using innovative approaches to active adult learning, and responding to immediate and long-term needs of the workforce will be essential to promoting quality improvements across the range of public health initiatives and programs. Survey respondents indicate a commitment to public health, access to professional development, and keen interest in the same areas of content identified by the expert panel. This is encouraging not only for the public health workforce but also for the communities we collectively serve in the spirit of health improvement. Academic and practice partnerships can be fruitful and, clearly, can be expanded well into the future.

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1. Welch WH, Rose W. Institute of Hygiene: A Report to the General Education Board of the Rockefeller Foundation. New York, NY: The Rockefeller Foundation; 1915.
2. Sellers K, Leider JP, Harper E, Castrucci BC, Bharthapudi K, Liss-Levinson R. Highlights from the Public Health Workforce Interests and Needs Survey: the first nationally representative survey of state health agency employees. J Public Health Manage Pract. 2015;21(suppl 6):S13–S27.
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