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A Call to Action: Training Public Health Students to Be Effective Agents for Social Change

Fielding School Dean Jody Heymann and Associate Dean for Academic Programs Hilary Godwin co-wrote a commentary for the American Journal of Public Health calling for a change to the way public health institutions engage students.
Friday, March 6, 2015

For public health to succeed in the 21st century, we need to create fundamentally new approaches compared with those pursued in the 20th century. Some of the greatest global successes (e.g., small pox eradication, soon to be followed by polio, hopefully) were massive efforts that required immense ingenuity, commitment, courage, and effectiveness, but these efforts still did not involve much social change. For instance, the technology of immunization has not changed how people work, how much they earn, or where and how they live.

Dr. Hilary Godwin with Cameroonian students
Dr. Hilary Godwin with Cameroonian students from HIES in Yaounde.

Areas in which we had remarkable, but partial, success in the 20th century included addressing motor vehicle accidents and tobacco-related deaths. Public health succeeded in dramatically reducing illness, injury, and death in high-income countries, saving millions of lives. At the same time, the globalization of the economy facilitated dramatic increases in tobacco use and poor quality diets in low- and middle-income countries; the latter situation resulted in a marked rise in the rates of obesity and diabetes, although malnutrition is still widespread.

FSPH doctoral students Bryan Moy and Tamanna Rahman
FSPH doctoral students Bryan Moy and Tamanna Rahman.

When we look to the greatest population health challenges of the 21st century, whether addressing tobacco globally or addressing climate change, there will be no simple solutions. Reducing the extent of risk and preventing the massive amount of morbidity and mortality associated with social, economic, and environmental risks require addressing social factors both globally and locally.

We need to train public health leaders by providing students with the opportunity to: (1) develop the skills needed to successfully address problems that require societal change to solve, and (2) address social, economic, and environmental problems as part of a global community. We need to help all public health students develop these skills, including students in resource-constrained environments.

We describe two examples of approaches taken while training students and public health practitioners to address climate change, a problem that the World Health Organization highlights as one of the greatest threats to health that requires deep societal responses on a global scale...

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