The Mysterious Public Health Worker

During 1997 and 1998, researchers at the University of New Hampshire explored existing methodologies used to:

  • Characterize the public health workforce.
  • Convene a national meeting of an expert panel to address questions of how best to identify and characterize the public health workforce.
  • Develop recommendations for pursuing methodologies to assess the public health workforce through further grant activities RWJF might undertake.

Key Results

  • The investigator produced a concept paper, which found that, to date, workforce data collection efforts have been fragmented and offer only a limited view of the national public health workforce. In addition, most studies typically provide one of three types of analyses:

    • Descriptions of the public health workforce as defined by certain occupational classifications.
    • More in-depth analyses of specific professions within public health, such as physicians, nurses, epidemiologists, or laboratory personnel.
    • Workforce data on selected geographic areas.

    Finally, existing data collection efforts do not offer a comprehensive assessment of the national public health workforce or how workers spend their time.

  • The project sponsored a conference on January 15–16, 1998, in Newark, N.J., where 17 participants agreed that a national data collection effort would help policy-makers understand who in the public health arena is undertaking what kinds of activities.

    Given limited resources and the enormous complexities involved in collecting data, the panel suggested that a data collection effort could be made more manageable by honing in on crucial questions for policymakers or state leaders and collecting information on a core data set for that group. Special studies could then be conducted to enrich understanding of the public health workforce while not requiring data collection on an ongoing basis.

    There was clear consensus that regardless of the framework or analytical approach to be used, any investigation of the characteristics of public health workers should start with a core set of functions, and should begin with workers in the public sector and then expand out.

    Most participants agreed that the state level is the proper unit for investigation, since much of what is done in public health is state mandated. Compiling data at a regional level may be difficult and costly, given the immense variability among the states.