Public health officials shoulder a huge social responsibility: educating and empowering people to take care of their health and prevent disease. It’s a multi-faceted, challenging job, but the reward of watching communities use health education to better their lives is worth all the hard work and effort.
The Role of Public Health Officials
Public health officials are educators about everything health-related, from sexually transmitted disease prevention to common cold avoidance. They are knowledgeable in the various socioeconomic, racial, political and other socially based facets of communities to work toward optimal health for everyone. The role of public health officials and their methods of preventing disease utilize collaborative, community-wide efforts to accomplish their mission. They are constantly planning and engaging, and they use program design, implementation and evaluation to accomplish their goals. They stay abreast of actions taken by state and local health departments, new state and federal health care laws, news about hospitals and clinics, the educational system, community-based organizations and businesses.
A cornerstone of effective health practice, community engagement builds skills and capacity within a group of people, which are essential factors for quality health standards. Public relations campaigns, advertising and marketing play a large role in community engagement. This strategy involves community members and a reliance on their own resources or strengths as the basis for designing, implementing and evaluating solutions to problematic conditions that affect the community. It results in activities and programs that mirror the assets, needs and resources of the population, as well as outcomes that are understandable to community members and that reflect community expectations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (CDC/ATSDR) Committee for Community Engagement suggests several fundamental principles that help guide community members in designing, executing and assessing community engagement efforts and form effective engagement partnerships.
- Clearly communicate the purposes and goals of engagement.
- Know the community’s political structure, economic condition, demographic habits and trends, norms, values, history and engagement effort experience.
- Establish a trustful relationship with the community and seek commitment to engagement from its members.
- Remember that engagement acceptance is up to the people of the community; beyond a public health official’s efforts, the end result is out of the official’s hands and in the community’s.
- Partner with community members to bring change and ultimately improve their health.
- Respect the diverse groups within a community.
- Utilize community assets and develop its capacity for being proactive about community health decisions.
- Maintain an adamant communication policy. “Governmental public health agencies must find ways to improve communication and openness with the public to maintain and increase their trustworthiness,” according to the Institute of Medicine.
- Let go of desired control of community actions and decisions, and instead be flexible enough to meet the constantly changing needs of a population.
- Commit to the community’s long-term needs, and don’t be short-sighted in terms of goal-setting. Long-term commitment will speak to community members and help them trust your input.
Public health officials who believe a community will always respond positively to engagement must prepare themselves for possible rejection. They must also take the time to garner authentic participation from even the most unyielding community members and adhere to the highest ethical standards, as purely ethical action is the only hope for developing and maintaining people’s trust.
Eradicating Health Disparities
Racial, ethnic and socioeconomic differences, especially among minority groups, can influence health in a community, and public health officials must learn about these differences and work around them to help unite health efforts. Certain populations’ genetic and social tendencies can bring on glaringly different diseases, and officials must bring increased attention to these disparities so that resolution and problem solving can be a reality, not just a goal. Where teen pregnancy may be an issue in a certain demographic of the population, it may not be in another. Women of one minority may be at more risk for breast cancer than another minority’s female population. It is the job of the public health official to recognize different health tendencies and problems and to tailor engagement and education efforts accordingly, as well as tailor promotions to fit different cultural needs.
Various factors and barriers to a community’s better health status can include, but are not limited to:
- Education and income
- Genetic and hereditary health problems
- Lack of health care insurance and little or no access to affordable health services
- Language differences and scarcity of interpreter services
- Negative cultural history and pessimistic attitude toward western medicineShortage of transportation to health services
- Lack of childcare available to attend health-related appointments
- Few health providers familiar with varying cultural groups
Public Health Emergency Preparedness
Public health emergencies can range from anthrax threats to rapidly spreading flu epidemics. In case of a disaster, public health departments receive funding from the CDC to prepare state and local health officials to take on threats of bioterrorism, chemical disasters, infectious diseases and other threats to public health.
Officials will sometimes use these funds for the following:
- Preparedness planning and assessment of emergency readiness.
- Surveillance and epidemiology capacity, or ensuring that systems are in place to quickly detect, investigate and stop disease outbreak.
- Laboratory capacity-biologic agents, or identification of bioterrorist agents at public health laboratories.
- Health alert network and communications technology, which enable rapid exchanges of information on the local, state and federal level in case of a public health emergency.
- Communicating health risks and timely health information dissemination to citizens.
- Education and training of state and local public health staff.
Emergency preparedness doesn’t stop there. Public health officials are also responsible for:
- Leadership in coordination and management of public health response plans.
- Assessing local public health capacity.
- Overseeing development and exercise of a far-reaching public health emergency response plan.
- Leading in the response to an event.
- Promoting provider compliance of infectious disease reportage in an event.
- Maintaining and enhancing a local health alert network.
- Planning the communication of information to media and citizens during an event.
- Assuring understanding of plans, policies and procedures among their staff.
Researching Economic and Social Determinants of Health
Health is more than avoiding sickness. It is about preventing disease and aiming for an optimal state of being. Public health officials must attend to the major influences of health, which include:
- Social and economic environment: Interactions with friends, family and co-workers, the workplace, stress about job security, ethnicity, religion and at-home living conditions.
- Physical environment: The quality, safety and sustainability of a community’s environment, which provides sunshine, food, water, materials for shelter, industry and clothing.
- Health practices and coping skills: Health-promoting and health-compromising behaviors, habits and attitudes, and the ways community members cope with stress.
- Biology: Family history, genetic composition, physical and mental health problems.
- Health care services: Access to and quality of health services.
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