Insider’s Look Into The Public Health Profession With Jessica Wahlstrom
Jessica Wahlstrom is a public health professional with several years of experience working in diverse settings. Her experience includes a range of activities in the areas of public health education, research, program planning, implementation, and evaluation.
She is also an experienced technical and grant writer. Jessica currently works as a Public Health Planning Consultant and teaches as an adjunct professor at LIU Brooklyn in both the Master of Public Health and Bachelor of Science in Health Science programs.
Jessica is a board member and co-chair of the Program Committee of the Public Health Association of New York City. She is also a trained Labor Doula and Certified Lactation Counselor. She holds an MPH from Columbia University and a BA in International Affairs from the George Washington University.
Read on to learn more about what it’s really like to be a public health practitioner.
- You’re a public health consultant; why did you decide to enroll in a public health graduate program?
- Where do you currently work? Can you talk about your key responsibilities?
- Tell us about your educational background. Where did you study to become a public health practitioner? What were some key courses?
- What is your favorite part about public health? Do you specialize in a certain area?
- What are the most important skills or personality traits a public health practitioner should have?
- What do you see as the most challenging part of your profession?
- What does an average workday look like for a public health consultant?
- What are some of the key public health issues practitioners are tackling today?
- What is one piece of advice you would give a public health student who is just starting out in the field?
- How do you see the public health profession evolving over the next 10 years?
1. You’re a public health consultant; why did you decide to enroll in a public health graduate program?
After earning an undergraduate degree in International Affairs, I accepted a position with a non-profit organization that does community-based health work in diverse settings around the world. I had only taken one public health course while completing my undergraduate degree and thus, my understanding of the field was rudimentary. Despite my limited understanding, I did recognize that health was a human right and essential to supporting positive social change. After spending nearly three years with the organization, I had gained incredible experience and knowledge about public health. Perhaps one of the most important things that I learned through these experiences was that I needed additional training to become a more effective public health practitioner. I decided to enroll in a Master of Public Health program as a way to advance my career and further effect social change.
As a public health consultant, at any given point I may find myself working in different capacities for different employers at the same time. For example, I am currently working with the Bureau of HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Broadly, in this capacity I work with other staff members to research and plan programs that provide medical and support services to uninsured and underinsured people living with HIV/AIDS in New York City. I also work with both the Bachelor of Science in Health Science and Master of Public Health programs at LIU Brooklyn. I really enjoy teaching in an adjunct capacity and working with students. I am often contacted about other opportunities to consult on short-term and ongoing research, program, and evaluation activities with public health agencies and organizations. I evaluate these opportunities as I am made aware of them to determine if I have the time, skills, and interest necessary for the job. When time permits, I also work as a birth doula and certified lactation counselor with women in New York City.
3. Tell us about your educational background. Where did you study to become a public health practitioner? What were some key courses?
I studied at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. Knowing that I wanted to focus my public health practice on reproductive and family health, I applied and was admitted to the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health within the Mailman School. I loved my program and accepted opportunities to study, research, and work both with faculty on the New York City campus and with a research center in East Africa.
It is hard to identify just a few key courses from the curriculum. I truly use knowledge and skills that I took from most courses in my work on a regular basis. Given that my work tends to focus on public health program planning and evaluation projects, however, I can say that my Research Methods, Program Planning, Evaluation, Qualitative Research, and Epidemiology courses were especially helpful in preparing me for these activities.
I love community planning and consensus-building. Public health programs designed to promote the health of individuals and communities will fail without involvement from all stakeholders. Facilitating the involvement of many and helping to build consensus around public health priorities and goals is often challenging but it is also very rewarding when sound programs are implemented as a result of these efforts. For example, a health education campaign about diabetes prevention may appeal to the funder of the campaign and be based on scientific evidence, but if diabetes prevention is not a health priority of those receiving the health education messages, the campaign will fail.
Another aspect of public health work that I love involves the opportunities that I have to collaborate with individuals from different fields. There are few things in this world that do not influence our health. Similarly, there are few things in this world that are not impacted by our state of health. This means that public health practitioners can collaborate with individuals working in any field – business, education, the arts, policy, urban planning – to plan and implement initiatives that promote health.
The community building activities and opportunities to collaborate with professionals from other fields make my work as a practitioner specializing in reproductive and family health even more interesting.
5. What are the most important skills or personality traits a public health practitioner should have?
This is a difficult question to answer. The field of public health is so diverse and there are so many functions that practitioners can serve. The skills that a person develops and hones are often related to her/his specific interest in the field. For example, while I am required to read and understand statistical analyses in my work, I rarely – if ever – perform these analyses myself in my current positions.
I tell students that while the possibilities of career options are endless, just the name of the field – “public health”- implies interaction of some sort with people. For this reason, communication skills, social skills, and a genuine interest in and sensitivity to the needs of others are key skills and personality traits that a public health professional should have.
One challenge that almost all public health professionals face involves the limited resources available to meet the multitude of health needs of people around the world. Limited resources can also further complicate the work of building consensus on public health priorities among stakeholders. Additionally, public health professionals are often challenged by the sensitive nature and politicization of health issues. Current health care reform debates in the United States provide great examples of these challenges; an inability to build general consensus around health priorities and the politicization of health issues have made reaching agreements about specific reforms difficult, if not impossible.
This depends on the day and the workload. All of my workdays require a lot of self-direction since, for the most part, no one is there to provide structure or ongoing guidance. I enjoy that aspect of the work and the flexibility that it can afford me. To a certain degree, I am able to determine which projects I work on and often when I work on them, as long as I meet my deadlines.
While my work as a consultant provides the flexibility to work on such a diverse range of projects during the same period of time, it also requires some juggling. While I spend some days in one spot – for example, working from an office or my home – other days I spend traveling between offices and to meetings for my various projects. The key to managing my workdays is to stay incredibly organized and regularly evaluate my workload.
Given what I believe to be an expanding scope of public health initiatives and mandates in many parts of the world, there are a myriad of issues that practitioners are tackling at this time. Specific health topics, such as the effects of socioeconomic status, obesity, aging, chronic disease, globalization, infectious disease, and environmental degradation on the health of individuals and populations, are example of key issues. Practitioners are also tackling issues related to the ways in which public health initiatives are funded, regulated, and delivered. For example, practitioners are challenged by determining ways to understand and implement health care reform, health informatics, and population-level health interventions like banning trans fats and smoking in public.
9. What is one piece of advice you would give a public health student who is just starting out in the field?
Be involved. Take advantage of every academic, student leadership, and professional development opportunity that you have as a student. Understand that some of these opportunities will be offered to you and other opportunities you must seek. Recognize the value of each of these experiences. Work hard in your coursework and in your research, volunteer, work, and/or internship positions. Do more than what is expected of you. Ask questions of your professors and public health practitioners. Request informational interviews with public health professionals. Join a public health association or organization. The more you do to familiarize yourself with the field and network while you are enrolled in a program, the more equipped you will be to hit the ground running as a practitioner when you graduate.
I believe that the public health community will continue to improve at collaborating with unlikely partners, which will expand the reach of public health initiatives. For example, some health education interventions are offered in non-clinical venues, such as hair salons and in the workplace, to reach individuals who may not access health services through more traditional venues. I also think that technology and other tools will continue to greatly impact the ways in which we practice and promote public health. We have not fully explored applications of telemedicine and other technology, for example, and other roles that social media can play in public health work have yet to be discovered.
Finally, people outside of the health field are starting to learn more about public health. It will be interesting to see how increased awareness about the field and a growing number of academic programs graduating trained practitioners with diverse skill sets will impact the profession.
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