Faces of Public Health: Fern Goodhart

Apr 5, 2013, 11:37 AM

file Fern Goodhart, former Public Health Fellow in Government

The American Public Health Association (APHA) is currently accepting applications through April 8 for the association’s one-year Public Health Fellowship in Government. Fellows work in a congressional office on legislative and policy health issues. The position gives Fellows the opportunity to learn about the legislative process in Washington, DC, which can be a critical skill once they return to their positions in public health, since policies are an important tool that can be used to protect Americans and their communities from preventable, serious health threats.  And it also allows Fellows to provide critical input, drawing on their knowledge and experience, on the decisions that impact public health at the national policy level.

To get some background on the role of a Fellow and the impact that public health practitioners can have when working in the national policy arena, NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Fern Goodhart, current legislative assistant to Senator Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), who spent the tenure of her fellowship working in the office of Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey). Ms. Goodhart was the first person awarded the APHA policy fellowship and served in 2007-2008.

NewPublicHealth: What was your background before you took the fellowship?

Fern Goodhart: I have worked in public health for 30 years including at a state health department; as director of health education at an ambulatory center; as a medical school instructor; as a member of an autonomous board of health; and as a member of my city council. So I’ve had the opportunity to see how policy was made on the local level and the state level. What brought me to the APHA Fellowship was the desire to see firsthand how policy was made at the federal level.

NPH: What kind of work did that involve?

Fern Goodhart: While each fellowship may work differently my office recognized that I know New Jersey and have relationships with people in New Jersey, and after some training and guidance I often met with constituents and attended briefings and summarized them for staff and the senator. I recommended some legislation and the senator selected two policy initiatives that he asked me to work on that resulted in two bills being introduced. So, it was a chance to experience what it was like to work on the legislative staff for a U.S. Senator.

[Editor's Note: We enjoyed Goodhart's blog from her time as a  Fellow, which notes the following highlights from her tenure, "by the numbers":

NPH: What did you use from your previous experience in public health in your work in the senator’s office?

Fern Goodhart: Everything from recognizing problems to identifying resources to conflict negotiation.  I found that knowing what tools were available, analyzing information and drawing conclusions for policy recommendations was crucial.  Understanding how the public health system works. How local, state and federal governments interact with each other. The role of public, private, for profit, and non-profit organizations, and how each is critical to achieving public health outcomes. All of this experience was a very solid foundation for me to be successful. 

NPH: What have you been doing since you left the fellowship?

Fern Goodhart: Actually, I enjoyed that fellowship experience so much and knew that Congress would be working on health reform in the year following my fellowship so I was reluctant to leave. I looked for a job with an incoming senator at that time and I was fortunate to be hired by Senator Udall where I am still on staff.

NPH: What’s your portfolio there?

Fern Goodhart: Health, education, Indian health, Indian education, children, women, adoption, some social security issues and workforce issues. It’s a broad and exciting portfolio. I was here during health reform; Senator Udall played an active role during that debate and continues to be involved with its implementation. It’s been an opportunity to advise him on issues that I care about.

NPH: Given your long career in public health, what do you see as the profile of the person who would most benefit from doing a fellowship as you did?

Fern Goodhart: I would say that having some public health experience is crucial, since it would provide a context, a framework to listen to people, to review legislation and make recommendations, and to recognize gaps and needs. So, I wouldn’t recommend a fellowship for an early career public health person. At the same time, I think that it’s not as fulfilling for a last step in a public health career because you learn so much that you can build on with your next step after a fellowship. I think this is so well-suited to a mid-level public health career person who has had some boots on the ground experience, who understands public health programs and services, and realizes that policy change is necessary to improve public health.

NPH: How well do you think policymakers understand the vital role of public health?

Fern Goodhart: When I first got here, I was a little dismayed by how little understood I felt public health was, but I’m finding there are more members coming to Congress and more Congressional staffers who understand public health. Some even have a public health background though not nearly enough. People still think of public health care programs like Medicaid when they hear the words “public health” or they’ll say public health but mean health care, so I think the public health community still has a need to get the message out to policymakers about what public health is and why it’s essential.

NPH: What are some of your suggestions for best communicating what policymakers must know about public health and its critical role in the United States?

Fern Goodhart: My suggestion is to realize that every public health message is being weighed against messages from every other field, along with requests, to give only a few examples, for improvements in agriculture and the military and transportation. So, public health value, in and of itself, is not persuasive. I think to get attention in that legislative noise, public health needs to talk about what it accomplishes and what would not happen if public health funding was not there in terms of lives lost, and that so many people are healthy right now because of public health. There are children in school who otherwise would be in the emergency room being treated for accidents and illness. The more we can discuss the actual impact of successful results, the more persuasive I think we can be.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.