I am currently working on a project with an interdisciplinary team made up of social workers,PTs, OTs, SLPs, dental hygienists and Pharmacists. We are all graduate students. It is always funny to watch people’s expressions when I introduce my field in our project. They can understand all other clinical branches but that one.
I think it is quite sad that Public Health does not get as much respect and recognition as other fields do, particularly since many of the things we do in terms of promotion of health, safety and prevention of diseases in our day to day lives are as a result of public health initiatives.
Let’s start with the first question: what is Public Health? Public Health is the science and art of preventing diseases, prolonging life and promoting health through the organized efforts of society (UK Department of Health, 1987). Very nice right?
The question becomes why don’t we get the same kind of respect? *tear drops* I believe the answer is because our strength lies in prevention and promotion, and because deaths and illnesses do not happen as a result of our initiatives, no one really sees our triumphs. For example, a specific field of public health can find out that certain things in the environment can create a health condition and might come up with ways to prevent that from getting into the environment and getting into our bodies to make us sick. They will also come up with recommendations of changes that might need to be made. Because of this work done by public health practitioners, the community is informed and they make appropriate changes which saves lives and prevents people from getting sick. It is silent. Now, let’s say someone does not get that information and does not make appropriate changes, this person will get sick, go to the clinic or to the hospital, and be seen by a clinician who will come up with a treatment plan that will be followed by the individual. This individual will get better and the applause will go to the clinician who did the healing and not the Public Health Practitioners who had already set up guidelines to prevent the illness from occurring . We are the silent do-gooders.
Just in case you meet someone who introduces himself or herself as a potential public health practitioner, just know that this person works within the community or a particular demographic. He/she uses assessments or policy development as a tool. She/he is very interested in the system, I.e, how it works and how it can be improved and her/his end result is that the community as a whole will be a healthier place. Clinicians are very individual client minded while we are very community/demographic/population minded.
I will give another example to clarify. An interdisciplinary team is called in because geriatric individuals from a particular town within the last two months have suddenly lost their ability to communicate, can’t walk, can’t have a normal life, loosing their teeth, they need drugs and resources. This is how this situation might play out. Obviously,individuals from this demographic have been seen by doctors who have documented, run tests and written out a prescription. But the question is what is going on and why is this happening?
How will this all work out? The SLP will work on communicative disorders, PT will work on getting these patients to walk, the OT will see what adjustments might need to be made in terms of tools to accommodate these individuals going back to their work place or having their normal lives back, the dental hygienist or dentist might work on their teeth , the pharmacist will give them the drugs as written on the prescription by the doctor and the social worker will put together the resources/information necessary for his/her clients to live a more comfortable life. But,the people who solve the question of what is going on, why this is going on and how can this be prevented in the future are the public health practitioners. They will also put together a policy after all that is done which will protect the community. What does this mean? If the policy is implemented, future geriatric population will be protected. We are the investigators, the problem solvers, the documenters and sometimes, the implementors. We work with the team of health care professionals but we are the silent workers. Do you now see why we need hugs all day? *tear drops*
Interestingly, in terms of career movement, many clinicians are in Public Health and vice versa. I have mentioned several times that we have some doctors in my class. We also have other clinicians as well. Some of them have worked in their field and they want to get the tools necessary to have an alternate view point about diseases and healing. We, also have people who move from public health to the clinical field for whatever reason. Personally, I believe money and adjusting to a new environment quickly might be the incentive. Ignore me! I am just being a cynic.
Will you make a ton of money? Will you be able to swim in a swimming pool of money? Will someone show you the money in Public Health? No. In fact, there are some specialties in Public Health that will make you wish that you never got into Public Health because the earning potential is so low but if your focus isn’t on the money but rather on ensuring that you leave a healthier community behind, that you create change by advocating for the community and vulnerable populations. Then you will love this field.
Hopefully, I’ve cleared the air about us. Next time you meet someone who introduces himself or herself as a public health practitioner, give that person a hug because the clean air you breath is because of the work her/his predecessors did.
PS: This blog post isn’t implying that Public Health Practitioners are the rockstars of the health profession because we aren’t. Rather, we work with other health care professionals to ensure that the population is healthy, so while clinicians heal, we prevent, promote and often, implement.