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Public Health Reporting Threatened by Workforce Exodus

By Frank Irving

- Expansive planning for creation of an interoperable health system over the next decade includes a final stage, from 2021-2024, when public health agencies and researchers will leverage real-time data access in development and delivery of cutting-edge treatments. That outlook may need to be adjusted, however, in light of an unprecedented contraction in the public health workforce as predicted by a newly compiled study.

A learning health system calls for use of data by public health workers, but that employee sector is expected to shrink by nearly 40 percent by 2020.

A daunting 38 percent of state public health workers plan to leave the workforce by 2020, according to data from the Public Health Workforce Interests and Needs Survey (PH WINS), conducted by the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) and the de Beaumont Foundation.

PH WINS, the largest-ever study of its kind expects current public health workers to retire or pursue positions in other sectors in that timespan. The findings appear in a special supplement of the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice.

“We have been concerned for some time that an aging state agency workforce would be retiring. This survey shows that many younger workers also plan to leave their public health positions, said Paul Jarris, MD, ASTHO executive director in a public statement. “Maintaining a vibrant, well-educated and agile public health workforce is vital to supporting our efforts to serve the health of the nation, and we face a larger challenge than we expected in retaining a talented, effective public health workforce.”

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  • The survey points to workforce turnover as a significant factor. Of the workers planning to leave their current position, 25 percent said they would retire and 13 percent would leave for a position outside of public health.

    “Of note, those most likely to leave for reasons other than retirement include individuals aged 25-40, racial and ethnic minorities, and those with fewer than 10 years of experience in public health.”

    The report also singles out pay disparities within the job sector. For example, women and people of color make less than their white male counterparts “despite the fact that the public health workforce is predominantly female and relatively diverse,” the study finds. “On average, women and people of color in state public health agencies earn 90 to 95 cents on the dollar compared to their male and white counterparts, after matching for seniority, experience and educational attainment.”

    "This survey points to issues we must work together to address," said Edward Hunter, CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation, which funded the survey. "We need to redouble our efforts to reinvent workforce structures to reward creativity and innovation, provide opportunities for ongoing professional development, and engage with young and mid-level public health professionals in order to retain our best and brightest and build the workforce we need for the future."

    An accompanying article by Edward Baker, MD, an adjunct professor of health policy and management at the University of North Carolina, stresses the “urgent need for enhanced commitment to informatics as a core competency for all public health workers.” He also emphasizes improvement in management and leadership skills and practices essential to the “business of public health.”

     

     

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