Even before COVID-19, California’s ability to address critical public health needs was already hampered by health workforce shortages and hiring challenges, the rapid aging of the current workforce, and decades of underinvestment that left departments understaffed and underresourced.
A group of current and former public health officials and public health experts joined a webinar hosted by the California Future Health Workforce Commission on Friday, September 25 to discuss how the state’s public health system has found ways to respond effectively to the unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic—and what the state can do next to shore up this essential workforce.
“COVID is creating a platform for us to think more broadly about what public health means, and to use that information to shine a light on what we need to do next,” Sandra Shewry, Acting Director of the California Department of Public Health, said during the webinar. “It’s a time of immense pain, but also immense opportunity. The public health workforce has been neglected, needs attention, and offers incredible opportunities to influence not only the state’s health but our shared goals of a more equitable and just society. Being purposeful about how we do it is a really powerful tool.”
Panelists discussed advancing several solutions that were identified in the Commission’s 2019 report:
- Bring together schools and programs of public health and local health departments to train the next generation of public health professionals and advance health equity: The Commission promoted creating new partnerships between local health departments and public health schools and programs to create 15 academic health departments (AHDs) that build public health practice and research capacity—and increase the number of public health students exposed to, and prepared for, governmental public health positions. (Commission Recommendation 2.6)
- Support scholarships for qualified students who serve in underserved communities: The Commission proposed developing and implementing a new scholarship program to cover tuition for 10% of students enrolled in health professions programs to enable more Californians to pursue degrees in high-need health professions like public health—and to practice in underserved communities. (Commission Recommendation 1.3)
- Expand and strengthen loan repayment programs for public health students: The panelists also discussed applying the state’s successful loan repayment model to students pursuing public health careers. The Commission promoted using Proposition 56 funds to expand loan repayment for primary care doctors serving in underserved areas—an idea advanced in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 state budgets. (Commission Recommendation 1.6)
- Recording: The session recording can be found here.
- Summary of public health recommendations: The Commission’s 2019 recommendations for bolstering the public health workforce can be found here.
- Full Commission report: The full Commission report is here.
- Anthony (Tony) Iton, MD, JD, MPH, Senior Vice President, The California Endowment; former director, Alameda County Public Health Department (Moderator)
- Manal J. Aboelata, MPH, Deputy Executive Director, Prevention Institute
- Muntu Davis, MD, MPH, Health Officer, Los Angeles County
- Rebecca Nanyonjo, DrPH, Director, Merced County Department of Public Health
- Sandra Shewry, MPH, MSW, Acting Director, California Department of Public Health