Emory Report
April 16, 2007
Volume 59, Number 27

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April 16, 2007
The future of public health

Darren Mays is a Ph.D. student in behavioral sciences and health education and chair of the American Public Health Association Student Assembly.

National Public Health Week, a nationwide effort in which public health professionals actively engage with their communities to spread awareness about the issues important to improving public health, took on a different meaning this year on Emory’s campus. The theme of the annual educational campaign of the American Public Health Association was “Take the First Step! Preparedness and Public Health Threats.” APHA set this year’s theme to raise awareness not only about particular public health threats, but to educate the populations and organizations who could be hit the hardest in times of a public health crisis.

The student leaders at the Rollins School of Public Health planned a week of events and activities April 2–6 that were open to the Emory community and ranged from showing films to featuring invited speakers to the RSPH Olympics. Each day of the week focused on different public health issues. Tuesday’s theme was addressing the needs of local food banks, for example, while Friday’s theme focused on the needs of individuals with unique and chronic health conditions. The events (23 in total over the course of the week) at Rollins represented the greatest response submitted to APHA by any student group in the U.S.

National Public Health Week events engaged the community with speakers on preparedness, scholarly poster sessions and daily physical activities to get people out and moving. However, throughout the week Emory students, faculty and staff also took time to give back to the community. Keeping with the theme for National Public Health Week, Rollins students coordinated a food drive for the Atlanta Community Food Bank, and by the end of the week collected more than 1,300 items to donate to the food bank.

What does the week represent for Emory and for the field of public health? It is a fact that the academic program at Rollins is outstanding — recently the U.S. News & World Report rankings illustrated this point, as the school jumped up two spots on the list of schools of public health over the course of the past year. However, National Public Health Week 2007 illustrates that it is the students at Rollins who are truly dedicated to making a difference in this field.

The field of public health is facing a documented crisis in its workforce — many public health professionals at the state and local levels are reaching retirement age in the next few years and there is no doubt that the effects of this trend will be felt at federal, state and local agencies. A recent study conducted in part by the Health Resources and Services Administration, in which Georgia was a key participating state, indicated that public health agencies have difficulty recruiting to fill key positions of employment, from public health nurses and physicians to health educators and epidemiologists.

However, the students at Rollins showed that here in Atlanta — a city fondly referred to by Dean James Curran as the “public health capital of the world” — the future of the public health workforce is in dedicated hands. If Atlanta truly is the heart of public health in the U.S., the students at Rollins demonstrated with National Public Health Week that this is true at every level — from the Centers for Disease Control, to the hundreds of public health community-based organizations, to the students at Rollins who are truly leaders among their peers. Imagine what these students, who took the time to put on such a week voluntarily, will do when they are employees at our public health agencies in the future.