Disrupting the public health workforce

18 Nov, 2019
 
Dr Cath Conn

New Zealand's public health workforce is rapidly changing in response to local and global trends, including new technologies, widening inequities and the health impacts of climate change.

Public health has traditionally focused on individual lifestyle changes, rather than prioritising environmental and community responses. However, new jobs are emerging in planetary health (which recognises that human health and the health of our planet are inextricably linked) and digital health – including the creation of games and apps for wellbeing, and programmes focused on sustainability.

These jobs are not restricted to government departments and district health boards – they cover a wide-range of corporate and social enterprises, and non-profit organisations.

Changes to the public health workforce are broadly described as a shift from fixed careers (lifelong, white-collar work involving routine processing) to portfolio careers (incorporating more complex and creative problem-solving, collaboration and online projects – in addition to more contract work and self-employment).

Fewer fixed roles and rapid technological changes fuel the need for people to upskill continuously. It calls for higher education to transform, from a factory model to personalised learning, to help build an agile workforce.

Auckland University of Technology (AUT) has launched a Major in Public and Environmental Health as part of the Bachelor of Health Science. Incorporating the study of policy, systems, management and enterprise, media and communications, and big data – the programme combines high-level thinking with the hands-on skills to deliver effective public health initiatives.

AUT Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of the Faculty of Health and Environmental Sciences, Professor Max Abbott, says the vital contributions of public health professionals and scientists often go unnoticed, until something goes wrong.

"Public health is mostly about prevention and remains anonymous. Who do we thank for avoiding illness from contaminated food or water, or injury in a car accident," says Professor Abbott.

"Successive governments have taken their eye off public health and its critical role in promoting wellbeing and reducing inequities. Funding has languished relative to other parts of the health system," he says.

"While it is essential to provide timely access to clinical services, we cannot treat away large and persistent health inequities. This can only be achieved by strengthening public health organisations and communities, and going upstream to address social and environmental health determinants."

Looking forward, the programme will pilot microcredits (certificates that are shorter and more targeted) providing greater choice and flexibility. Topics include leadership, data analysis, complex problem-solving using game design, and documentary making.

Dr Cath Conn, Associate Head of the AUT School of Public Health and Psychosocial Studies, says greater choice to explore subjects allows for those that have been excluded, including models of Māori health, equity and sustainability.

"We see our students as agile future leaders, entrepreneurs and prosumers in public health. There are significant opportunities in this space for Māori and Pacific leadership," she says.

Visit aut.nz/PublicAndEnvironmentalHealth for more information.

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