What Public-Health Students Can Learn in the Real World

The most effective academic programs give tomorrow's public-health workers the chance to experience these vital services firsthand.
February 2, 2015
By James W. Brown  |  Contributor
James W. Brown, a former assistant commissioner of health for New Jersey, is a faculty member at American Public University.

As more and more public-health workers retire, we will increasingly face a shortage of qualified personnel to fill the ranks. Higher-education programs in public health are an important resource to address this need, but the most effective programs involve experiential learning, and every government public-health agency should play a part.

Our public-health workers of the future need not only to learn the basics but also to experience directly the delivery of public-health services in the community. Being engaged in public-health activities gives them a chance to observe not only successes but also how agencies deal with challenges and barriers.

Public-health agencies can foster this type of learning in several ways. One is by providing opportunities for students to shadow public-health officials. Students benefit from candid conversations and interactions as they observe the ways those who work in public health respond flexibly to changing community needs.

Opportunities to learn through helping to deliver services are equally important. Several of my New Jersey-based students, for example, have provided valuable services related to homelessness.

One such opportunity came in New Jersey's Pine Barrens, where Lakewood Township's "tent city" was home to as many as 120 homeless individuals. It was a modern Hooverville, reminiscent of the homeless communities that sprang up around the country in the early 1930s.

Students visited Lakewood's tent city every semester and reported back on the public-health needs of the people living there. Many community organizations and churches supplied food, clothing and other basics and helped the encampment's residents survive through snow-filled winters and even two major hurricanes. The township government was able to find temporary housing for these homeless individuals in the summer of 2014. Students were able to participate every step of the way.

In another case involving the needs of the homeless, New Jersey students were able to bring about a change in policy. This occurred in a seaside resort community that had publicly stated that it had only a dozen homeless individuals. Students drove through the town at night, following a grid pattern, and identified between 50 and 70 people who appeared to be homeless. These findings were shared with the township at a public hearing and used to support the opening of a local shelter.

Events can also give students needed insights. I have worked with many health departments to develop public-health expos for students. These typically involve presentations from a variety of public public-health professionals who describe their work and discuss the most urgent public-health needs.

Recently, students from Kean University, American Military University and American Public University attended the annual meeting of the New Jersey Public Health Association, which focused on public-health issues involving military veterans. Students learned firsthand about the public health needs of returning veterans and about the work of the providers who deliver clinical, preventive and support services.

And at a New York State emergency-preparedness conference, students met hundreds of first responders and local officials from across the state and were present for the unveiling of a statewide emergency emergency-management certification and training program. In Pennsylvania, students were given the opportunity to attend a conference about health equity issues.

These are just a few ideas for collaboration between public-health agencies and academia that could be replicated around the country. No matter what forms these efforts take, helping to educate today's public-health students through real-world experiences is a winning idea for the future of this vitally important government function.