Looking to the Future: Building a Robust Public Health Workforce

This week, I had the pleasure of joining public health colleagues from around the country at the APHA annual meeting. In one session, Dr. Lisa Waddell, chief medical officer for the CDC Foundation, and I shared our perspectives on how we can build robust public health workforce. Given today’s challenges, it will not be an easy task, but it’s something about which I am passionate and determined to help achieve.

Today, we have more knowledge and technology than at any other time in our history. We can use that technology to map our future state, but it will only take us so far. To create a complete picture, we will need collaborative and thoughtful guidance from a broad selection of stakeholders. We will need to lean on our real-world experience to encourage people, systems and processes to change in strategic ways. We will need to remain focused on our goal and avoid the traps and missteps that could hold us back.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made a compelling case for change within our system, but the pandemic has shone a light on what those of us in public health already knew— our country is feeling the consequences of decades on underinvestment in public health prevention. The United States is the richest country in the world, yet we have been among the most severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This pandemic laid bare our fractured health system, the fragility of the public health structures, and the deep-rooted health and economic disparities that plague our country. It unleashed escalating attacks on science and public health officials. The spread of misinformation in social media has undermined trust in science and public health communication and led to widespread confusion about risk reduction behaviors during a time when the public’s cooperation was critical.

While we continue our response efforts and begin to repair the damage the pandemic has caused, we must also see this moment in our history as our time to act.

Today’s public health workforce is the key to creating change. For too long, public health professionals could only focus on surviving the latest public health crisis. Now is the time to build their capacity and create a society that supports and values them.

We desperately need to rebuild trust in public health and build a workforce with new communication strategies and tools in our hyperconnected world. We need to prepare the public health workforce to be ready to meet new challenges, such as the growing effects of climate change on health.

As we do so, we must recognize the needs of our most vulnerable populations and create a workforce that is able to provide everyone equal access to health information and services. We must invest in our state and local governmental public health departments, which are working to meet the changing needs of the communities they serve.

I truly believe that if we fail to adapt, we will fail to move our public health system forward.

Make no mistake, the COVID-19 pandemic must be our tipping point for proactive collective action. Together, we must think boldly and imagine a future public health workforce that is trained, supported and staffed to meet the challenges of the day, plan for the future and protect all people equally.

Dr. Judy Monroe
Judy Monroe, MD, is president and CEO of the CDC Foundation.