Leadership in public health: preparing for emerging issues

April 11, 2018

Public health is about protecting and improving communities through injury or disease prevention, education, and policy development. It is an area that encompasses many disciplines including medicine, biology, anthropology, public policy, and education. It is important for leaders in this space to work collaboratively and appreciate that there is crossover within all areas of public health.

Jim Gambone, PhD, public health faculty lead in Capella University’s School of Nursing and Health Sciences, shares his perspective on trends in public health and why developing public health leaders is an important thrust in the industry right now.

Q. What does leadership in public health look like?


A. Developing great leadership skills is something Capella strives to provide all its graduates. In public health programs, we concentrate on developing the following leadership skills:

  • Personal growth and leadership excellence. Leaders must understand the characteristics of an effective leader.
  • Leading organizational change. With public health issues becoming more nuanced and complex, leaders need to be adept at knowing how to drive change.
  • Communication skills. Building competency in this area can be the difference between being an effective or ineffective public health leader.
  • Good assessment skills. Analyzing situations from many angles will make for cogent solutions to pressing public health problems.
  • Public policy development. Program-building skills are critical to building effective public health solutions.
  • Diversity and inclusion. Great leaders understand how diversity in populations can influence public health solutions.
  • Systems thinking skills. Big-picture thinking is necessary to attack the complex issues arising in public health today.

Q. What are some of the top public health issues that leaders should prepare for?


          A. I see five key areas of focus for public health leaders, although there are many others.

  • Bioterrorism. This is a major concern in the area of public health. In my mind, it is not a question of if we’ll be attacked, but when we’ll be attacked, and public health will be key for prevention and recovery efforts. Leaders will need to be a part of proactive planning and development and educate communities on what the implications can be and how to stay safe if an event occurs.
  • Infectious disease. Infections in hospitals, resistance to antibiotics, travel and communicable diseases across borders—these are all increasingly important issues of public health. We are an interconnected world and, as such, will share many of the same public health issues across the globe.

Read more about the role epidemiologists are playing in global health epidemics.

  • Obesity and famine. Obesity in first-world countries and famine in developing countries are emerging public health problems. We need to intervene at an early age to combat obesity and understand what the effects are on our health care system as two-thirds of Americans are overweight. On the other end of the spectrum, globally, about 795 million people of the 7.3 billion people in the world, or one in nine, are suffering from chronic undernourishment.* This is a crisis in public health crying out for strong leadership.


  • Do-it-yourself health care. DIY health care through un-vetted apps and technology has become a rising phenomenon. Public health leaders will be forced to understand the effects of the DIY movement and develop public policies to respond to the issues it presents. And if this is the new way in health care, leaders will need to look at what this means for public health—for instance, can and should these same devices be used to monitor larger populations or community health issues?
  • Tobacco and non-tobacco products. Cigarette smoking is estimated to cause more than 480,000 deaths annually (including deaths from secondhand smoke).* Through public health campaigns, we have seen tremendous progress in diminishing smoking in public places. Now we must also dedicate research resources to non-tobacco products, like e-cigarettes, to provide answers and insight into public health effects.


Q. How is Capella preparing leaders to deal with the issues you mention above?


A. Capella’s approach, particularly in our doctor of public health program, is to focus on the skills and qualities we believe are necessary for leadership on any given topic. If we can focus on skill sets that cut across all areas of public health and can be used in any kind of program (whether as a bio-statistician, epidemiologist, etc.), we will be graduating great leaders wherever they land.

In particular, developing community-building and collaborative leadership are strengths of Capella’s program. Collaboration is of high importance—no one can deal with these issues alone. It is our job to develop leaders that can build strong communities working together to solve emerging problems.

Q. What does the public health career landscape look like?


A. There are a wide variety of career opportunities. Related jobs to explore with a DrPH* include:

  • Public/community health specialist
  • Health scientist
  • Principal investigator
  • Public health advisor
  • Infection prevention and control professional
  • Health research analyst

Related employment settings to explore include:

  • Health care organizations
  • Nonprofit organizations
  • Federal, state, and local government
  • State or local department of health
  • Community health agencies
  • Research organizations

*These are examples intended to serve as a general guide. Because many factors determine what position an individual may attain, Capella cannot guarantee that a graduate will secure any specific job title.

Learn more about Capella’s Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) program.

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