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Paving Pathways: shaping the Public Health workforce through tertiary education

Catherine M Bennett12*, Kathleen Lilley3, Heather Yeatman4, Elizabeth Parker5, Elizabeth Geelhoed6, Elizabeth G Hanna7 and Priscilla Robinson8

Author Affiliations

1 School of Health and Social Development Deakin University, 221 Burwood Highway, Burwood, Australia

2 Melbourne School of Population Health, The University of Melbourne, Australia

3 School of Public Health, Griffith University, Australia

4 School of Health Sciences, University of Wollongong, Australia

5 School of Public Health, Queensland University of Technology, Australia

6 School of Population Health, The University of Western Australia, Australia

7 Public Health Association of Australia and National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, The Australian National University, Australia

8 School of Health Sciences, La Trobe University, Australia

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Australia and New Zealand Health Policy 2010, 7:2  doi:10.1186/1743-8462-7-2

Published: 3 January 2010

Abstract

Public health educational pathways in Australia have traditionally been the province of Universities, with the Master of Public Health (MPH) recognised as the flagship professional entry program. Public health education also occurs within the fellowship training of the Faculty of Public Health Medicine, but within Australia this remains confined to medical graduates. In recent years, however, we have seen a proliferation of undergraduate degrees as well as an increasing public health presence in the Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector.

Following the 2007 Australian Federal election, the new Labour government brought with it a refreshing commitment to a more inclusive and strategic style of government. An important example of this was the 2020 visioning process that identified key issues of public health concern, including an acknowledgment that it was unacceptable to allocate less than 2% of the health budget towards disease prevention. This led to the recommendation for the establishment of a national preventive health agency (Australia: the healthiest country by 2020 National Preventative Health Strategy, Prepared by the Preventative Health Taskforce 2009).

The focus on disease prevention places a spotlight on the workforce that will be required to deliver the new investment in health prevention, and also on the role of public health education in developing and upskilling the workforce. It is therefore timely to reflect on trends, challenges and opportunities from a tertiary sector perspective. Is it more desirable to focus education efforts on selected lead issues such as the "obesity epidemic", climate change, Indigenous health and so on, or on the underlying theory and skills that build a flexible workforce capable of responding to a range of health challenges? Or should we aspire to both?

This paper presents some of the key discussion points from 2008 - 2009 of the Public Health Educational Pathways workshops and working group of the Australian Network of Public Health Institutions. We highlight some of the competing tensions in public health tertiary education, their impact on public health training programs, and the educational pathways that are needed to grow, shape and prepare the public health workforce for future challenges.