Category Archives: Public health professionals
Future of Public Health is an ongoing series focused on the emerging faces in the world of public health. We spoke with Azmina Lakhani, MD, MPH, about what helped lead her to the field and where she hopes to go from here.
NPH: What’s your educational background in public health?
Azmina Lakhani: I went to the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy for high school, and then I did medical school, undergraduate and public health all at Northwestern University in Chicago. I received a BA in psychology and global health as an undergrad and then for the next five years I attended medical school and earned a Master’s in Public Health, as well.
NPH: This seems like something that you went into knowing full well that this is what you’re interested in. What was it that encouraged you to pursue a degree and a career in public health?
Lakhani: I had sort of been interested in health care in general in high school, and I wasn’t really sure whether I was going to do research or clinical work or public health work, but in college I really started becoming interested in public health. First through global health, I started learning about different health care systems abroad and doing some volunteer work in Ecuador and Mexico City. That’s really when I got interested in health care delivery systems and also how one can have a greater influence on health.
I appreciate the clinical side. I’m a family medicine resident in training currently, so I love working one-on-one with patients. I also see a lot of value in making an impact on a larger scale—whether that’s how someone gets their health care, what insurance systems we have in place, or the traditional public health things that you think of such as vaccines—that have a really large impact on people. But I think for a shorter answer to your question, I really got interested in college and then built on that in medical school while I was getting my MPH.
NPH: Within the field of public health, what’s your primary interest? What really speaks to you? The global approach?
Lakhani: I think public health is just so awesome because it has so many different facets, and to be honest, I don’t have one particular interest in terms of public health. During my year at the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) I worked on a project called PlayStreets. It’s a very simple idea where we close down streets in the city—neighborhood streets—to allow children with little access to public spaces to have a place to play. The whole intent is to get people out there, meeting their community members, and, in the long term, trying to reduce childhood obesity. It’s kind of a lofty goal, but I am interested in making resources available to people so they can take control of their own health on a broader scale and PlayStreets was one example of that.
Several weeks ago, the Harvard School of Public Health celebrated its Centennial with fanfare, fundraising and a panel discussion featuring world health leaders who are graduates of the school. Following the centennial, NewPublicHealth spoke with the School’s Dean, Julio Frenk, MD, MPH, PHD, who has a joint appointment at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is also a former health minister of Mexico and a former senior fellow in the global health program of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
NewPublicHealth: What do you think have been the key changes in public health efforts since the Harvard School of Public Health was founded 100 years ago?
Julio Frenk: The 100 years that have passed since the School of Public Health was founded are not just any 100 years—they’re the 100 years with the most intense transformations in health in human history. We have seen a more than doubling of life expectancy since the school was founded. Around 1900, the global average for life expectancy was 30 years. At the end of the century, the global average was about 65 years. It more than doubled in the 20th century, and that increase has continued with some setbacks, most notably the AIDS epidemic in Saharan Africa. And we have had a qualitative shift not just in the level of mortality, but in the causes of death. So we went from a preponderance of acute infections to now a predominance of mostly chronic non-communicable diseases, and that’s an incredible transition.
A critical change is that the experience of illness became very different starting from the beginning of the 20th century. Before then, illness was mostly a succession of acute episodes, from which one either recovered or died. If you recovered, you went on to get your next acute illness. Now, illness is more a condition of living. People live with cancer. People live with AIDS. So that’s a big transformation of the patterns of health, disease and death.
Another big change is the emergence of complex health systems, and that’s—again—a process that started at the beginning of the 20th century. Before the 20th century, the social function of the sick was mostly trusted to undifferentiated institutions, such as the family or religious institutions, and it’s not until the 20th century when you see this incredible explosion of specialized institutions and specialized human resources, doctors, nurses and other health professionals. In the 20th century, healthcare is 10 percent of the global economy and employs millions of people, including eight million doctors. These are all profound transformations.
NPH: How has the training of students of public health changed in the last 100 years?
Frenk: There has been profound change. What happened at the beginning of the 20th century was the emergence of public health as a field of action. The practices of engineering emerged in Europe, especially with the rapid urbanization there starting around the 17th century, but then greatly expanded in the 18th century. Engineering allowed for access to clean water and taking care of waste, which resulted in some diseases coming under control. In the 19th century the discovery of microbiology gave rise to the abolishment of the germs as causes of illness. That is the junction that gives birth to public health, along with the idea of social policy, of social activism that actually changed social conditions. It’s in that mix that public health gets shaped.
Today is Public Health Thank You Day 2013, when Research!America and other leading public health organizations recognize the public health professionals working to improve health where we all live, learn, work and play.
Among the biggest names in public health at the moment is Shiriki Kumanyika, PhD, MPH, a University of Pennsylvania professor who earlier this month became the president-elect of the American Public Health Association (APHA). In a recent Q&A on APHA’s Public Health Newswire blog, Kumanyika spoke about the overall landscape of public health and gave her thoughts on particular issues.
One of the big takeaways from the APHA annual meeting earlier this month—where she was named president-elect—was how APHA is shifting its focus to concentrate more on being an action- and goal-oriented organization, according to Kumanyika.
“We are going to be more convincing about the importance of a focus on prevention and wellness, while making better use of scientific evidence and creating a greater sense of urgency around health equity issues,” she said. “I think that, over time, this new positioning in the public arena will really enhance the sense of community among our thousands of diverse members, attract more members and align our combined efforts for greater overall impact.”
Kumanyika also has particular ideas on the greatest opportunities for improving health in African-American communities, especially when it comes to nutrition and obesity prevention. Not only are unhealthy foods too easily available in the average black community but, when compared to other communities, the situation is even more troubling, with black communities seeing more advertising for unhealthy food. The answer is targeted efforts to promote healthier alternatives.
However, she also noted how food and nutrition present their own particular public health obstacles.
“Food is a particularly complex area; we can’t treat it like tobacco and tell people to avoid it altogether. The changes we need are more complicated and will have huge implications across the spectrum from agriculture to environmental sustainability,” she said. “We have to make both a public health case and a business case for a healthier food supply and for marketing healthier foods and beverages. We have a tremendous opportunity to make progress that will change the food and health landscape for the population at large if we do our health diplomacy well.”
Read the full interview on Public Health Newswire here.
The Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH), like the American Public Health Association, held its annual meeting in Boston last week. NewPublicHealth spoke with Harrison Spencer, MD, MPH, executive director of the ASPPH, from Boston about the meeting and what’s ahead for students of public health.
NewPublicHealth: How was the meeting and what were some of the key sessions?
Harrison Spencer: Our meeting this year was the first one held since we formed our new organization, the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health, on August 1. The new organization is now comprised of all accredited public health academic institutions, both schools and programs. We’ve got 93 members now, an increase from 57 members before, so this was a wonderful and exciting and dynamic annual meeting with lots of energy and lots of promise.
Among the highlights were Harvey Fineberg, MD, PhD, president of the Institute of Medicine, who gave us an inspirational talk about public health leadership, and Laura Liswood, Secretary General of the Council of Women World Leaders, who led a discussion on diversity as a way to make organizations and institutes stronger.
The celebrations earlier this month for the Harvard School of Public Health’s centennial included galas, world leaders and a $450 million fundraising campaign, about a third of which is already completed.
But the most poignant moments may have been watching former graduates, many who are now in key health leadership positions across the globe, in quiet conversations with current students, answering questions about how to get the most out of their time in Boston to help improve population health when they hit the field. Kelechi Ohiri, MD, senior adviser to the Nigerian Ministry of Health, who got his Harvard Master of Public Health eleven years ago, sat out some of the formal Centennial lunch to speak to a current student from his country whose excitement at meeting Nigeria’s top health official bubbled over.
“Meeting him makes me believe I’ll be able to use what I’m learning to help make a difference at home,” she said.
Ohiri said that a critical focus should be “networking to improve skills and create contacts,” which he said is often underutilized by students of public health, and contrasted that with networking as an “explicit goal” of the Harvard MBA program.
Several graduates who are now world health leaders convened for a panel discussion moderated by Institute of Medicine President Harvey Fineberg (who received all his degrees, including his MD, from Harvard) about their experiences in the field of public health. In addition to Ohiri, participants included:
- Gro Harlem Brundtland, MPH ’65, the former Prime Minister of Norway and former Director-General of the World Health Organization
- Suraya Dalil, MD, MPH ’05, the Minister of Public Health of Afghanistan
- Howard Koh, MD, a former professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and currently the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health
- Pradit Sintavanarong, MD, MPH ’89, the Minister of Public Health of Thailan
Q: What can I do with a career in public health? Tell me what you do.
A: "As a Communications Watch Officer for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, I research public health emergencies and the communications equipment used during… emergency responses." – Excerpt from “I Am Public Health”
In recognition of National Public Health Week, which ended last week, the Association of Schools of Public Health has just launched an “I Am Public Health” web app to help students at schools of public learn about career opportunities. Responses from thousands of public health professionals in positions from NGOs to academia include job title, key focus of the job and salary range.
Want to add your anonymous information to the app? Take this survey.
>>Weigh In: Do you have a public health job you think students would be excited by? Tell us what you do and how you’ve made a difference in the comments below.
>>Check out more interesting public health jobs in our Faces of Public Health series.