News  |  February 28, 2022

As American Rescue Plan funds are received by state, Tribal, local, and territorial governments, health departments are faced with the need to prioritize making the most prudent use of the funds while juggling immediate needs and long-term strategic objectives. Many priorities rise to the surface – data modernization; finding a way to bolster, or in some cases, restore public health’s legal authority; strengthening the public health infrastructure; and increasing resources to sustain and reinforce the public health workforce all bubble up repeatedly. Allocating the funds and making plans for their smart use requires that decision-makers be able to understand their biggest challenges and have some knowledge of evidence-based approaches to address them.

Training and preparing a stronger public health workforce are certainly on the minds of many of those working in public health, as the pandemic continues and beleaguered public health professionals strain against ongoing understaffing and the clear need for increased capacity. Questions abound. What should the public health workforce of the future look like? What skills do they need? What is the best way to prepare new professionals to enter public health? Are there assessment tools, structures, or frameworks that are proven? Where does one begin?

Health departments must be ready to use their new funds quickly while also ensuring a long-lasting and meaningful impact. If it was not clear before the pandemic, there is no denying it now: the workforce and the approach public health takes to its ongoing maintenance, growth, and improvement requires strategies that are not the historical norm for public health. Innovating and modernizing are occurring in discrete ways and places and are becoming more and more a part of the public health lexicon, but available funding, amid a pandemic, with the need for forward-thinking on the mind of public health makes this the perfect opportunity to stretch and attempt to answer these questions.

Innovative ideas include helping the workforce gain new skills in strategic thinking, problem-solving, business practices, and data science. As Public Health 3.0 is realized and local public health leaders take their places as the chief health strategists in their communities, bringing in partners and building coalitions is even more essential. For this to be effective, good data is needed to inform programs, services, and initiatives in partnership with businesses, nonprofits, and grassroots organizations. Ensuring the capacity of the workforce to function in this way requires an understanding of the gaps in knowledge and skills at the level of the individual employee, effective development practices, and education that is easily accessible and efficient.

Cross-training is another area for expansion. The pandemic revealed the need for the workforce to be able to pivot and expand immediately as conditions changed. This kind of flexibility and response is a strength that creates resilience in the capacity to provide needed services as they shift. It may contribute to the resilience of the workforce in other ways; the level of burnout and stress public health professionals are dealing with now is widely recognized, and cross-training can provide people with the chance to share the work, increase their sense of self-efficacy and readiness, and strengthen their confidence in their whole public health team.

The need for diversity, equity, and inclusion cannot be overstated. To serve diverse communities and populations in a way that builds on an intimate knowledge of the communities’ needs and challenges, the workforce needs to reflect all the people it serves. Pipeline and recruitment strategies must be addressed at a higher level, but the health department will improve its methods of personnel development and retention through providing increased opportunities for innovative education delivery, cross-training, and creating a learning organizational culture. Public health should take this page from the book of business: workers and leaders thrive in organizations where growth, learning, and smart risk-taking are not just encouraged but are also modeled. If innovation and adaptability are what is needed, the organizational culture has to change to align with those values. This necessarily starts at the top.

Public health activities will undoubtedly continue to look different in different communities based on the objectives and the needs of each but with the smart use of new federal dollars, readiness to innovate, and commitment to workforce improvement, public health will make this opportunity work for the health department in a way that meets both immediate needs and long-term strategic goals. Using evidence to establish workforce frameworks and assessment tools that work and that can provide metrics for evaluation of their impact, public health will be confident in their ability to provide essential services and exhibit foundational capabilities. This effort can establish a new set of shared resources to meet the needs of health departments in addressing the workforce challenges they are facing today and decrease the challenges they may face tomorrow.

If you have an innovative idea or example to share, please email [email protected].