Public Health Workforce Research in Review

This literature review reveals a lack of research on critical topics in public health workforce development, which is of concern given that public health must strategically address issues of effectiveness, including a workforce shortage and the need for increased diversity.

This systematic review, one of several commissioned by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on public health services and systems research (PHSSR), encompasses articles from 1985-2010 concerning “people who provide essential public health services” in the U.S. Specifically, this review includes 98 articles identified through ERIC, PubMed, Google, and Web of Science and related to the themes of diversity; recruitment, retention, separation and retirement; education, training, and credentialing; and pay, promotion, performance, and job satisfaction. (A companion review covers the themes of workforce size and composition; workforce effectiveness and health impact; demand for public health workforce; and public health workforce policy.)

Key Findings:

  • There is little or no research available on many critical topics, including diversity, retention, separation, and retirement; worker pay; worker performance; and worker promotion and job satisfaction.
  • Much of the literature in this review is based on research related to a single job classification.
  • The most plentiful literature was related to recruitment, education, training, and credentialing.

Underlining that the existence of only meager research on diversity is problematic, the reviewers point to arguments that the lack of a diversified health workforce may significantly contribute to disparities in access and outcomes. They also note that public health is facing a looming workforce shortage. The authors assert research must remain a critical priority, is needed in all four thematic areas included in this review, and can contribute to the formulation of well-informed, evidence-based workforce development strategies that, in turn, will lead to a larger and stronger public health workforce.