A few weeks ago, I had a student email me to learn more about what it’s like to work in the field of public health nutrition. Since my last day with Kaiser Permanente is this Friday, I’ll soon be ending this stage of my professional public health career, moving toward a life in academia where I aspire to bridge the worlds of the liberal arts and public health. While my day-to-day life will focus less on applied public health practice, answering this student’s questions made me all the more proud of the work, perspective, and contributions of public health.
What follows is some of our Q&A.
What do you enjoy best about your job?
When I explain what public health is to people who don’t know exactly what we do, I say this: So, those fifteen minutes you spend with your doctor? That’s most healthy people’s experience with the health care system. Public health, on the other hand, is in your workplace, your community, your schools, and your faith communities keeping you healthy. Public health is prevention. Public health is making sure you don’t get sick and end up in the doctor’s office or in the hospital. And there’s more! Those are just the parts of public health that I specialize in.
People often haven’t got a clue what public health is or how it impacts our lives. For me, I love that I play a small role in creating healthy environments that help people to be healthy, whatever that means to them. For me health means being able to live free from pain and negative stress, which opens us up to be the selves we want to be, to live fully and with great joy. Public health has a very social mission in addressing the needs of underserved populations who inequitably suffer from poor health. It’s not about “educating” people on what is healthy. It’s about creating systemic solutions that address structural inequalities to promote long-term healthy environments for all people.
How did you get involved in this line of work?
I have always been interested in food and nutrition. After undergrad, I considered getting an MA RD and working as a dietitian (I had been admitted to the graduate dietetics program at the OU Health Sciences Center where my husband got his MPT), but public health nutrition trains you to work at the population level, rather than one-on-one as RDs typically do. Public health training opened my eyes to the truly holistic nature of health; how healthy eating and physical activity are great preventative acts, but are only one small piece of the puzzle.
The workplace makes sense to me as an intervention site. American culture is incredibly work focused, so if I can help employees to live healthy lives at work, that can influence at least one-third of their meals and many of their waking hours. Those healthy habits can then touch others in their lives, including their children, elders, friends, and community members. The workplace can serve as a touchpoint for community health. Thus, effective wellness programs include everything from healthy relationships with coworkers to healthy affordable food in the cafeteria to financial counseling services. Each part is an important piece in one’s overall health and everyone needs support to focus on something different.
In general, however, this work is not done at the individual level. These aren’t solely personal problems. The idea is that effective policy fosters healthy environments in which people can easily make healthy choices and then, as we love to say at Kaiser—Thrive. In the end, a person does need to make choices and decisions, sacrifices and trade offs, but those are actions that occur within a much larger and more complex cluster of events.
What is one piece of advice that you would give to someone looking to enter the public health workforce?
You have to love it and feel called to make a difference because the work can be challenging and change is often slow to come. In my experiences in worksite wellness, for example, even the best programs take years to show measurable results, such as reductions in cost or in biometric risks. You have to be focused on the long-term benefits and not get discouraged. You also need to be able to articulate the reality of the situation to leaders and funders to maintain their support.
Also, I’ve moved in a different direction with my public health work, engaging a more multidisciplinary perspective. At times, public health training can be very practical and less focused on critical thinking. I’d encourage all public health students to engage other disciplines and ways of thinking in their training. Consider the roles of culture and history in the larger scope of public health and you’ll see the greater context of the health problems we face and work to ameliorate.