Understanding the nature of public health crises

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Those tasked with overseeing the greater good of the public as members of government departments or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that focus on health must examine it from a wide variety of perspectives. Public health professionals often are not doctors, nurses, or other medical personnel, and thus won’t be assigned the duties of curing diseases or treating symptoms. Instead, they will labor to determine solutions to societal issues that might arise alongside a viral epidemic or another incident along those lines.

Successfully determining all factors affecting the population of a given area during a health-related crisis, developing actionable solutions—or, at the very least, palliatives—to them and executing such plans to the fullest extent possible are the primary responsibilities within the purview of public health professionals. Leadership, written and verbal communication, an understanding of sociopolitical dynamics on both micro and macro scales, and a strong sense of pragmatism will all be necessary skills for the fulfillment of those responsibilities. Individuals looking to enter this field but wishing to broaden their understanding and administrative skills should strongly consider pursuing the online Master of Public Administration program from Rutgers University with a concentration in public health.

Understanding the essence of public health

People unfamiliar with the field can possess misconceptions about public health, perhaps confusing it with the services offered at a free clinic or some similar medical facility.

The American Public Health Association (APHA), known as the biggest advocacy organization for this sector, defines the term in its mission statement, explaining, “While a doctor treats people who are sick, those of us working in public health try to prevent people from getting sick or injured in the first place. We also promote wellness by encouraging healthy behaviors.”

Groups engaged in the essential tasks of public health maintenance can be local, like a municipal nonprofit foundation formed to raise funds for cancer research by a city’s hospitals. On the other end of the spectrum, there are agencies like the World Health Organization that work to tackle the globe’s biggest, most wide-ranging public health issues. Prospective or beginning MPA program students should think about the scale at which they’d like to engage in this field during the course of their studies to mitigate uncertainty early in their careers. Their choice will determine much of what they experience in their professional lives.

Varying scope of crises

“Crisis” might seem on the surface like a word with clear meaning. The breakout of a virus comes to mind, like the epidemics of severe acute respiratory syndrome that struck the world between 2002 and 2004. But while health officials in government or aid workers within NGOs would perform duties ranging from educating the public on symptoms to passing out preventive supplies, they aren’t always dealing with crises that they expect to have a finite life span.

Consider the spread of HIV and AIDS, which began in the late 1970s. Unquestionably a global crisis for the next several decades, its dangers have been partially mitigated in some parts of the world through concerted public health campaigns: widespread education on its risks, emphasis on safe-sex practices, and the development of treatments that allow patients to live longer than ever before after contracting the disease. Nevertheless, in sub-Saharan Africa, it is still the region’s pre-eminent public health hazard. According to a 2007 study published in Croatian Medical Journal and archived by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, 62 percent of the world’s active HIV cases originated in the continent’s southern half, while, on a daily basis, approximately 11,000 people die from the sexually transmitted disease and more than 14,000 individuals contract it. Because no cure exists for HIV, it projects to remain a public health crisis through the foreseeable future.

Merging of public health and sociopolitical concerns

Some widespread sociological issues not specifically related to conventional notions of disease—or previously often referred to as such—become recognized as public health crises upon reaching a certain saturation point.

Opiates have been used and abused in different forms all over the world for several centuries. But the rapidly increasing pace of opioid addiction rates and overdose deaths that the U.S. began experiencing between approximately 2014 and 2017 (with roots dating back to the mid-1990s) appeared to take American citizens, lawmakers, and some public health officials by surprise. This happening culminated in the Oct. 26, 2017, proclamation by President Donald Trump that this issue was “a public health emergency.” According to The Washington Post, Trump also called this phenomenon “the worst drug crisis in American history.”

This line of thinking is reflective of recent trends among both doctors and public health officials: For example, the 2016 Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health broke precedent with prior editions of the report and reclassified the entire issue of drug addiction as one that care providers and doctors, not law enforcement officers, should control most thoroughly.

Some similarly hot-button issues have engendered greater division regarding whether they can be viewed through the spectrum of public health. Vivek Murthy, the former surgeon general who oversaw the aforementioned report, said in a November 2017 NPR interview that gun violence—highlighted by 2017’s mass shootings in Las Vegas; Sutherland Springs, Texas; and elsewhere—constituted a health crisis. An editorial in the Journals of the American Medical Association, released around the same time, came to an identical conclusion. But the topic’s gargantuan controversy meant no agency or prominent health nonprofit would officially endorse Murthy’s belief. Dr. Georges Benjamin, the APHA’s director, said he believed the issue boiled down to making guns themselves more safe.

Recognizing the value of a broad perspective

With regard to addiction or any other matter where health, sociology, and ideology can intersect, MPA graduates with public health concentrations entering their first jobs in the field should never assume all of their peers will share their personal views or hold to the prevailing opinion of the sector. These burgeoning public servants will benefit themselves most efficaciously by avoiding preconceived notions of any kind. Focusing sharply on the objective facts of an active crisis and thinking quickly to offer practical forms of aid is essential, so the administrative and problem-solving skills that MPA program students learn can be immediately helpful.

To be clear, focusing initially on direct action does not entail ignorance of the societal or political issues that may surround a given public health issue that has spread out of control. In fact, turning one’s mind away from such factors directly impedes the analytical efforts that must follow a crisis. Efforts to mitigate the recurrence of the event that has just passed require the consideration of economic, societal, political, and cultural elements that may have affected the issue in any way. As with many aspects of public service, striking a balance between effective action in moments of strife or emergency and thoughtful analysis and policy planning in times of calm will be necessary.

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The School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers University-Newark, provider of the online Master of Public Administration, is accredited by the NASPAA. Before a program becomes eligible for accreditation by the NASPAA, its parent school must be recognized by a regional, national or international agency. Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, is accredited by Middle States Commission on Higher Education and is a member of the Association of American Universities

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