Sunday, March 23, 2008

The US needs more public health workers

Dr. Linda Rosenstock writing in the Sacramento Bee: As presidential politics shine a light on our very expensive – $2 trillion and growing – fragmented and inefficient health care system, a critical component with implications for all of us is at risk in the shadows.

By 2020 we will require an additional 250,000 public health care professionals in this country, about one-third of the number of workers needed to meet our vital public health care functions.

A new report, "Confronting the Public Health Workforce Crisis" by the Association of Schools of Public Health, builds upon the widespread consensus that there are insufficient and inadequately trained public health professionals to address current and future needs.

….The estimates of this looming crisis are sobering at face value, yet do not reflect that 23 percent of the current public health work force will be eligible to retire in the next five years. Nor do they include the increased need for American public health professionals to address the global public health work force crisis faced by the developing world.

….Despite the alarm bells sounded in this work force projection, there is an affordable solution.

We know public health interventions – whether prevention of disease through vaccines or population efforts to combat smoking and obesity – are a wise investment. The health advantages generated per dollar simply dwarf the costly medical care interventions that otherwise follow. For that reason alone we know that public health needs to work hand in hand with our broader health care system.

…To address this work force shortage we need to be bold – we need something like a National Public Health Emergency Plan to tap into remarkable interest for public health careers through recruitment, financial support and incentives to direct professionals where the need is greatest. Recently, Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, joined Senate colleagues in introducing the "Public Health Preparedness Workforce Development Act," an essential first step.

Projections indicate that an initial investment of about $30 million annually at the federal level would put the country on the right track to satisfy the demand for highly skilled public health professionals. After all, this work force crisis isn't really about the "public" – it is a threat to each of us as individuals, our families and our communities. Fortunately, this one can be solved, and at the cost of tens of millions of dollars, it is a relative bargain.

A 1963 polio vaccine poster, Center for Disease Control, Wikimedia Commons

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