Behind The Scenes In A Public Health Career
Exclusive Interview: Amy Metzger, Senior Health Program Specialist for Compassion International shares The Secret to a Career in Public Health
Amy Metzger was 15 years old when she started working in a hospital in her native state of Kentucky. Amy is a natural care giver. By the time she entered Northern Kentucky University she knew she wanted to be a nurse or pursue a career in the physical therapy field so she got her biology degree.
After graduation, while working in a hospital in Kentucky, Amy found out her sister was sick. So she went to Atlanta to stay with her. That choice lead to an adventurous career in public health. “It sort of happened by accident,” says Metzger, the Senior Health Program Specialist for Compassion International, a large global nonprofit. “I was working in hospitals and I had my biology degree and I kept thinking, ‘What am I going to do with this degree?’”
While in Atlanta caring for her sister, Amy decided to take classes at a nearby Emory University. One of the classes offered was in public health. Amy quickly settled upon a Master’s degree in public health with an emphasis in international health. While taking classes she began interning at the Center for Disease Control (CDC). The CDC is the nation’s health watch squad. It is the center of all the nation’s public health policy and research.
“Public health had been in the back of my mind all along,” says Metzger. “After all these years working in hospitals, seeing patients who were so sick, I thought it would be nice to help people prevent illness. It would be nice to stop people from getting sick.”
What Does A Public Health Professional Do?
When Amy Metzger first started her job as senior public health specialist at Compassion International, many of her co-workers had plenty of questions. “They would ask me, ‘What is it that do you do?’” she says laughing.
The main job of a public health worker is prevention — the field exists to keep people from getting sick.
With the recent reports of the Swine Flu in the media, public health has come into the foreground. The CDC has more than 97,000 followers on Twitter, Swine Flu has a recently created current events Wikipedia page and the Obama administration seems to have televised public health updates daily.
The most common image of a public health worker is probably something like Renee Russo’s character in the movie Outbreak, running around suburban neighborhoods, outfitted head-to-toe in a plastic protection suit in hot pursuit of an Ebola-like virus that is wiping out small town America.
But working in public health isn’t all about crisis or public health emergencies. A viral video from the American Public Health Association (APHA) showcases all the work that public health workers do from ensuring water safety in an African village to giving vaccinations at a local American clinic.
“It’s such a broad arena,” Metzger says of the public health industry. “A career in public health means working in all the areas of health care that prevent illness. Whether it is dispensing vaccinations, monitoring the effects of new medication, bio statistics, epidemiology, international health, environmental health research, health management and policy, or simple health education, there are plenty of opportunities to work in the public health industry.“
A Day in the Life of Public Health Worker
As a senior health administrator at Compassion International, Amy travels among the more than 20 countries in which Compassion works training health care workers to administer approved health care programs to Compassion-assisted children. Compassion works with more than 5,000 churches around the world to help more than 1 million children. Compassion’s global health program monitors everything from pre-natal care to vaccinations against any one of the many preventive childhood illnesses to administering HIV/AIDS therapy. A typical day is no typical day.
Amy may spend one day pouring over the latest health statistics from children in Tanzania trying to see if Compassion’s malaria intervention programs are working. She’s looking for malaria outbreaks, or more importantly, the lack of malaria outbreaks, among Compassion-assisted children there. The next week she could be bouncing inside a dirt-spattered utility vehicle on a dirt road flushed with rocks in Uganda traveling to monitor health workers dispensing crucial HIV/AIDS drug therapy.
She says she loves the variety and relishes the opportunity to meet people who are directly affected by her work each day.
How Is The Outlook For Public Health Careers?
The Association of Schools of Public Health (ASPH) estimates the United States will need more than 250,000 public health workers in the next decade. In addition, the public health force has shrunk, with more 50,000 fewer public health workers employed in 2000 than were in 1980. Added to that is the fact that nearly a quarter of the public health workforce is set to retire in the next three years. To keep pace with the growing need and contracting workforce, ASPH estimates the country will need to train three times the number of current public health graduates over the next 12 years.
“It is an emerging field and there is such a tremendous need,” Metzger says. “There are a lot of opportunities in the field of public health.”
“You really do not need that many years of education to get a job in the public health arena,” says Metzger who has a master’s degree in public health administration. “And if you have a degree in other fields — especially nursing or biology — but even finance, technology or economics, take a few courses in public health and it will definitely help you get a job in the industry.”
There are many ways to get a degree in public health including online undergraduate and graduate degrees as well as online certifications. Experts say it’s best to choose a sector you’d like to work in – say preventive disease, health education, strategy and research – and begin with online certification courses. The best options are for people who have a nursing or medical background already.
Public Health Career Opportunities
Unlike many degrees, a degree in public health can almost guarantee a job once completed. That’s because it is the fastest growing sector of the fastest growing industry in the United States. The ASPH predicts the major medical breakthroughs to come will not come from new medical cures or published findings but from population-based prevention programs. That means public health is a growth industry. Domestically health care centers are looking for public health workers to work in preventive diseases, vaccinations, community health and research and education and awareness.
Globally, public health workers are needed to help with health care infrastructure including computerizing health records, as well as medical research, monitoring the effects of trial medications and much more.
Here are some careers in public health that you may not be aware of:
- Restaurant Inspectors
- Occupational Health and Safety
- Community Planners
“I feel a lot of security in my job,” says Metzger who began working abroad in Uganda. “Go get a degree in public health and you’ll have lots of job security.”
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