At Home in Public Health

This week is National Public Health Week!  APHL will be posting stories from staff on our blog all week.  However, these aren’t your typical public health stories.  They aren’t from our program staff or the folks working in the laboratories; they are from staff whose jobs could be done anywhere for any type of organization yet they choose to work in public health.  Their journeys to public health are unique, but what keeps them here is quite similar.


By Scott J. Becker, Executive Director, APHL

I’m an Association guy and always have been.  My first job out of university was working for an association representing schools of public health and I’ve never looked back.  Those very first days got me hooked on both associations and on public health.

Scott Becker Why associations?  That’s easy – because being in a leadership position is somewhere between being a business owner (but not exactly) and being an entrepreneur, especially in a small association.   Early in my career I was given loads of chances and became a jack-of-all-trades which suited my “can’t sit still for five minutes” personality just fine.  Associations are places where like-minded groups come together to, well, associate.  I love the idea of being responsive to a constituency and feeling like I am responsible for a constituency.  Association management has been a great fit for me.

With the association management experiences I’ve had over the past 20+ years, I could run most any kind of non-profit (or even commercial) organization. I could run the truckers association – but instead I choose to work in public health. After all these years, I’m coming around to seeing myself as a public health professional that happens to run an association.  Public health hooks you in quickly and personally.

Public health is made up of many, many professions all working toward the goal of improving the public’s health.  Who exactly is the public?  It’s all of us.  Or as my Southern friends say, “it’s all y’all.”  Having grown up on the Jersey shore I’ve always thought of the public in public health as “youse guys.”

Here’s a given.  Public health is often times in the background.  It gets a bad rap (or no rap at all) because it is an inherently governmental function and some people don’t think very highly of government right now. Think of it this way… I’m sure you’ve heard all those lawyer jokes, right?  Most are funny, some are lame, yet many make me laugh (except when I’m in the company of my attorney-wife).  But when something bad happens (think car accident, breach of contract, you bought a lemon for a car) what do we do?  That’s right, we call a lawyer.  The same thing happens with public health.  When everything is working just fine, we don’t see or acknowledge that public health is at work.  But when something bad happens (think measles outbreak, a community-wide foodborne illness outbreak or a white powder letter is sent to your Senator) who is called?  That’s right, governmental public health agencies.

I’m often asked by family and friends what I do because the term “public health” is so obtuse.  One relative (who will not be named here for reasons about to become clear) asked what my “public health lavatories” association does.  Do we ensure that the toilets along the interstate were clean and hygienic?  Uh… no. But that is public health (kind of-sort of).  So I’m going to take a moment, in the middle of National Public Health Week, to share some of the things I think that make public health special and why you might want to thank a public health professional this week (or really any day of the year – we’re always working).

  •  Do you have clean water to drink?  Thanks to public health, most of us in the U.S. do.  We have water testing programs that can tell if there are pollutants from runoffs, chemical contaminants and other harmful things in our water.  Not only does it make your water safer, this information is what gets the polluters to stop.
  • Is your food safe?  What if there was a foodborne disease outbreak in your community?  Public health and PulseNet to the rescue.  A collaborative team of investigators made up of epidemiologists and public health laboratorians are there to help pinpoint the source of the outbreak so that an intervention can be put into place quick so others don’t get sick.  Think outbreaks related sprouts, cantaloupe, peanut butter…all detected through PulseNet.
  • Help! My kid just got bit by an animal! Is it rabid?!  We don’t often think of rabies anymore, but it’s still out there.  Your public health agency will get involved, coordinating with animal control and the public health lab to get you the answers you need.
  • A few drops of blood for peace of mind and for early detection.  Do you remember that little heel-prick to draw blood from your newborn before you left the hospital?  Even if you don’t remember, it happened and you should be thankful.  Newborn screening  aims to identify infants that appear healthy at birth, but are afflicted with genetic conditions that can cause severe illness or death.With early detection, these conditions can be managed to prevent complications.  Some conditions can even be cured if addressed quickly. Think Cystic Fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, and SCID (aka ”Bubble Boy Disease”).
  • Some of the smartest, most unassuming people can be found in public health.   I have many public health heroes, from nurses to community health workers to academics; science journalists who really get public health, those disease detectives and virus hunters, and those unassuming but critically important laboratorians-heroes in lab coats.  And many more.  Public health is interdisciplinary by its very nature.  No one public health professional can do their job well without the others on the team contributing.  It really does take a village.
  • Public health is essential for economic health.   Health care costs take up so much of an employer’s budget; can you imagine if our employee base was healthier?  Employees could then be more productive.  Healthy workers produce more, earn more, and can contribute to the overall economy and fiscal health of our nation. C’mon, this isn’t rocket science!
  • When an emerging disease is found, who springs into action?  Public health agencies.  Governmental public health agencies to be exact.  There is a disease detection network in every community at work every day to ensure that we can identify threats and intervene when they appear. Does anyone remember SARS?  It’s estimated that SARS cost upwards of $2 billion to the Canadian economy in 2004.

For more food for thought (no pun intended), you should visit Marion Nestle’s 2010 blog post in the Atlantic on why public health matters.  PS, she’s one of my public health heroes.

I thank the public health professionals I have met and worked with, as well as my many heroes of public health who have taken this association guy under their wing and allowed me to become one of you.  Though not formally trained in public health, I am at home. At some point this week, please give thanks to a public health professional.  You may have to look around for them, but they are there.  If you happen to have a cold, pass on the handshake and go for the fist-bump instead.  It’s more hygienic that way and we’ll understand.


More stories from APHL staff for National Public Health Week:


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