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Preparing Your Local Health Department for the Future

Jan 15, 2021 | Guest Author

By Joseph Iser, MD, MPH, FACPM (ACPM Board of Regents), Stephanie Zaza, MD, MPH, FACPM (President, ACPM), and Donna Grande, MGA (CEO, ACPM)

If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it is the importance of preparedness. Additionally, it has heightened the importance of public health leadership in the face of a crisis. As you assess and plan for the future needs of your local health department, consider the competencies needed in your physician leadership.

Most position descriptions for a physician to work at a health department, state or local, include at least board certification in a primary care specialty. Generally, a primary care specialty includes family medicine, pediatrics, or internal medicine. While these specialties provide excellent experience for their clinical specialties, they may be missing important skills and knowledge for public health or population health needs.

“To fully realize potential impact and health improvements, public health jurisdictions need experienced physicians who can work directly with populations; physicians with training in preventive medicine come with the requisite expertise and competencies to add value.”

A timely example is the current COVID-19 pandemic. Clinical care is important to take care of individual patients, both as outpatient and inpatient care. However, in order to respond to an epidemic or pandemic, experience and training in public health is essential to work with the general public and media and politicians to set up policies and procedures to protect the public’s health. A preventive medicine specialist has training in epidemiology, vaccinations, points of dispensing, and other issues related to responding appropriately and effectively to epidemics and pandemics. In other areas of infectious diseases, preventive medicine physicians generally have experience in dealing with rare diseases, which include smallpox, polio, even measles and other childhood diseases. They are trained to identify risks and to issue orders of isolation or quarantine. More importantly, they are trained to work with boards of health, however they are defined, to create consensus on these issues.

Preventive medicine trained physicians also understand the importance of chronic diseases in the population’s health. In general, they are also trained in specific, individual interventions to prevent chronic diseases such as cardiac and vascular diseases, pulmonary diseases, and cancer interventions. However, more important to the public health world, they understand community wide interventions, social media campaigns, and how to work with other community-based organizations to prevent chronic diseases.

Generally, physicians in other specialties are not trained in epidemiology and the assessment of overall community health and risks, but preventive medicine physicians are—they understand how to interpret data, including research data on how to intervene to prevent diseases. Preventive medicine physicians understand how to interpret rates of syphilis, youth smoking, use of e-cigarettes, and other issues important to protecting health. Additionally, racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic disparities in health are significant issues in community and population health. Preventive medicine physicians are trained to understand these issues and help intervene to help implement Health in All Policies and health equity.

Finally, one of the most important issues preventive medicine physicians are trained and experienced in is the role as chief health spokesperson for the jurisdiction and interfacing with the media. They understand the need for and ways to bring competing groups together to address health issues. These groups can be significantly disparate, and they include health-based organizations such as the American Heart, Lung, or Cancer societies, religious organizations, businesses, government entities, and others.

So, as you prepare for the new year ahead and look back on the lessons learned in 2020, consider adding an additional asset to your hiring requirements and consider a preventive medicine trained physician to help you advance your ambitious public health agenda.

For more information go to: www.acpm.org.


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About Guest Author

NACCHO periodically invites guest authors to write first-person accounts of their work in public health. To submit your own story for consideration, please visit our form.

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