While natural disasters, the threat of bioterrorism and other health threats are taking their toll on public health resources, the U.S. is facing a major public health workforce crisis that could impact the health of each and every American unless there is an immediate influx of funding for recruitment and training of public health professionals. The Association of Schools of Public Health (ASPH) released a first of its kind assessment of the crisis which found that more than 250,000 additional public health workers are needed by 2020 (see also Public Health).
The crisis is a culmination of already documented and forecasted shortages of public health physicians, public health nurses, epidemiologists, health care educators, and administrators and other contributing factors like an expected spike in retirement. In fact, 23 percent of the current workforce almost 110,000 workers will become eligible to retire during the next presidential term.
"Tackling the health implications of tobacco use, heart disease, obesity and physical inactivity, not to mention the threat of globally spreading infectious diseases, depends entirely on the availability of a well-trained public health workforce," said Dr. Linda Rosenstock, dean of the UCLA School of Public Health and chair of the ASPH Workforce Taskforce. "Unless we act now to recruit and train an additional 250,000 public health professionals, we will soon be ill-equipped to identify looming public health crises and respond decisively."
Leading public health organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Public Health Association, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials and the Institute of Medicine agree that the current workforce is inadequate to meet the needs of the US and global populations. Given the growing complexity of public health challenges, more specialists will need to be trained in additional public health sub-disciplines. Furthermore, in the era of globalization, the U.S. public health workforce needs to be adequately prepared to handle health threats that often arise from beyond our borders.
"These shortages have very real impacts. Fewer public health nurses mean fewer cancer screenings and fewer immunizations. Not enough epidemiologists make it harder to respond to food-borne outbreaks or to track emerging infectious diseases like MRSA (drug resistant staph infections). And, Hurricane Katrina made clear the importance of public health workers in responding to natural disasters," said Earl Hunter, Commissioner of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. "Denying a problem doesn't mitigate the staggering impacts on the physical, mental and financial health of our communities."
In order to address these significant shortages, ASPH is calling for an increased federal investment in public health education and training in addition to the coordination of a centralized enumeration effort to adequately understand current and future workforce needs.
"An appropriate number of well-trained public health professionals is critical in order to safeguard the health of our nation and our world," said Dr. Harrison Spencer, president and chief executive officer of ASPH. "Our government and our schools of public health play a critical role in preventing the forecasted shortage."
Additionally, increased recruitment, training and fellowship programs, financial aid assistance and expanded graduate-level opportunities are among the most urgent needs for averting this looming crisis. According to the analysis, Schools of Public Health will have to graduate three times as many public health workers over the next 12 years in order to meet national healthcare needs in 2020.A complete copy of the assessment is available on-line at http://www.asph.org/shortage.