Public Health Practice and Professional Development

In 2003, the Public Health Practice Program Office identified 6 elements to consider for developing a sustainable and competent workforce to deliver essential public health services: Identifying competencies and developing related curriculum; designing an integrated life-long learning delivery system; providing individual and organizational incentives to ensure competency development; conducting evaluation and research and assuring financial support.[i]

Since then, various entities, from schools of public health to professional organizations have provided a variety of opportunities for professional development, from continuing education to hands-on field training. Mentoring is one the methods used for professional development.

Mentoring

The Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists (CSTE)/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s Applied Epidemiology Fellowship is an on-the job-training program that uses highly trained and experienced mentors to guide the field experience.[ii]  Mentors can be viewed as “informal” leaders and as such possess competencies critical for leadership – years of experience. [iii]

Mentoring is an excellent means for professional growth and development. Expertise is considered a shared trait of successful mentors.[iv]   Expertise in any field has been defined by Gladwell as meeting the “10,000-hour rule.” To be highly accomplished requires 10,000 or more hours at the activity.[v]  Thus, five years of working at a 40-hour workweek (x 52 weeks) job would allow a person to reach a level of proficiency that would denote professional expertise.  As a profession that develops proficiency with practice, public health professionals should be provided opportunities to grow and develop their skills in the workplace through mentor/mentee relationships that are mutually beneficial.

Mentoring As a Public Health Practice Competency

In the 1997 US Department of Health and Human Services “The Public Health Workforce: An Agenda for the 21st Century” Report, mentoring was mentioned as an area for evaluation research regarding the development of workforce competency.[vi]

The Core Competencies for Public Health Professionals are a consensus set of skills that were identified as desirable for delivering essential public health services.[vii]  “The Core Competencies are designed to serve as a starting point for academic and practice organizations to understand, assess, and meet training and workforce needs.” [viii]  Currently this document is being reviewed and revised.  The present document (Revisions adopted May 2010) supports mentoring competencies at all levels of public health practice:

  • 8A6. Tier 1: Participates in mentoring and peer review or coaching opportunities
  • 8B6. Tier 2: Establishes mentoring, peer advising, coaching or personal development opportunities for the public health workforce
  • 8C6. Tier 3: Promotes mentoring, peer advising, coaching or other personal development opportunities for the public health workforce, including him or herself [ix]

The National Commission for Health Education Credentialing, Inc. (NCHEC) considers mentoring activities as a professional competency for those who are certified as health education specialists. NCHEC has developed competencies and sub-competencies to guide the practice of health education. Its sub-competency, “7.6.10: Serve as a mentor to others” comes under Competency 7.6: Promote the Health Education Profession. [x]  

Finally, there are resources providing guidance for developing effective mentoring programs. [xi] Current mentoring programs can be provided in a variety of settings. Mentoring activities take place as one-to-one or one-to-many relationships, and can take place via face-to-face and online venues.  

Summary

Mentoring is an accepted form of information sharing for public health practice in which those participating benefit professionally. It is an accepted form of communication that is viewed as a practice competency with the expectation that all public health practitioners should develop and use.  The next step is to educate employers of public health practitioners of the value in supporting mentoring networks in the workplace.

Such networks can benefit employers by nurturing professional development of its workforce.  At the same time, employers will have a ready pool of professional expertise that is rich in cross-disciplinary knowledge that is essential for dealing with the ever-changing priorities typical of Public Health service delivery.

Betty is the director of the Public Health Expertise Network of Mentors (PHENOM). PHENOM has been in existence since 1993 and currently offers mentoring via an online directory of 61 public health professionals.

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