Working in Public Health

My journey to working in Public Health began in 10th grade.  Yes, 10th grade!  There was a woman in my church that offered free step aerobics classes.  A friend and I decided to attend.  We were on the younger side to be part of this class but, none the less, we went and had a great time.  We became regulars in the class and my personal interest in fitness exploded.

My first professional role was in conducting personal training sessions and leading group fitness classes.  Working with clients was fulfilling but interactions with them often left me feeling that there was more to health than individual responsibility.

I decided to go a new direction.  After a lengthy application process, I was selected to serve as a Community Health Volunteer for the Peace Corps in Fiji.  In this role, I was exposed to health programming at the community level.  I worked with the children from the school, the village women’s group and a local youth group for teens.  With each of these “communities”, the goal was to create programming that addressed their unique needs, was meaningful and made wise use of available resources.

Upon returning home to the States, I wanted to continue my work in Public Health.  Now, when I tell people my profession, I am often asked “What actually is Public Health?”

Public Health is a field that seeks to prevent illness and injury from occurring.  It works to make the environments in which people live, work, learn and play conducive to good health.   Public Health is a broad field and includes public health nurses, health educators, nutritionists, food inspectors, emergency preparedness planners and epidemiologists.

My work falls more under the health education realm.  I work on a grant called the Statewide Health Improvement Partnership (SHIP) that strives to “Make the Healthy Choice the Easy Choice.”  Within this grant, myself and others implement policy, systems and environment changes through community partners. The best way to explain what this means is to give you some real examples.

First, let’s look at a couple of examples of policy change.  Policies surrounding healthy food are often implemented.  These policies could include that balanced meals need to be served at employer sponsored events, school vending machines only sell whole foods or hospitals not routinely offering sugar sweetened beverages with meals.    Another example of policy change is employers drafting policies for their lactation rooms that are used by mothers to express milk and/or breastfeed.

Next, let’s take a brief look at systems change.  This example will be in the health care setting.  Healthcare providers often screen for health-related behaviors, like nutrition, exercise and smoking.  All too often, patient concerns in these areas go unaddressed.  A system change would be for the healthcare provider to refer patients to community resources for nutrition, exercise or tobacco treatment.

Finally, an example of environmental change could be at a food shelf.  The food shelf can change their layout to make fresh foods more accessible and put up signs directing shoppers to the healthier items.  Another example is an employer putting small exercise equipment in the break room for employees to borrow and use during their workday.

While the opportunities for Public Health programs are endless, priorities are often selected with a focus on health equity.  Health equity is working with populations that have historically had poorer health outcomes influenced by factors such as race, income, education, disability and gender.  Health equity seeks to level the playing field and allow all people in the community to achieve an optimal level of health.

This brings me full circle.  My career began with a focus on individual health behaviors.  Now my focus is on health at the community level.  Both are important in preventing health issues.  Public Health is my passion now as it allows me to focus on health for all people in the community.

-Alyssa Wolf, MS
Health & Well-Being Consultant