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Oxford Careers Conference Report

Public Health Careers in the 21st Century

Oxford hosted a major conference on 20 September to look at public health careers in the 21st century. The aim was to inform, inspire and enthuse the next generation of public health. Delegates from all walks of public health life came from across the UK to listen to public health leaders, practitioners and those embarking on a public health career and contribute to the discussions on future challenges and opportunities. Topics ranged from careers and opportunities within the three domains of public health practice (health protection, health improvement and health services) but also extended to global health, academic public health and even public health careers you might not have thought about. Despite the proposed changes to the public health system in England and the uncertainties surrounding these changes, there is great optimism that there is a vibrant future for public health, while recognising that it will be different.

There was an opportunity to hear about the forthcoming public health workforce strategy for England and to feed into the discussion on the consultation questions. Delegates felt there was a need to do more to develop career paths across the whole of the public health workforce, with opportunities such as apprenticeships, and also to start to generate interest in public health careers much earlier on ? at schools and universities.

Key messages from the day were:

  • Commitment, confidence, clarity of purpose were essential
  • Focus on your skill set
  • Be prepared to help shape your own career and be flexible about where this might take you
  • Seize opportunities as and when they arise
  • Be prepared to get stuck in ? public health means doing
  • Be innovative and creative
  • Never forget that public health is an art as well as a science
  • Develop and use your networks and contacts

Podcasts of interviews with the main speakers and extracts from the plenary sessions will be available on PHORCaST.

Dr Michael Bannon, Postgraduate Dean at the Oxford Deanery and Lead Dean Public Health, welcomed delegates and emphasised that there is a rosy future for public health, although we must develop more collaborative approaches (e.g. taking in Environmental Health), and those thinking of a career in the field need to acknowledge that things are changing. He concluded by talking about the reasons for considering a career in public health: (1) the skills you gain will always be needed (although you will need to be flexible about where you use them); (2) it?s a fascinating field covering a huge, broad area; (3) you have the opportunity to make a difference ? and the reward of knowing you have done it.

Professor Lindsey Davies, President of the Faculty of Public Health, began by discussing exactly what public health is ? both a science and an art. Science underpins everything (although it?s necessary to be honest if the evidence is poor). Art is sometimes the dark art of politics, at other times developing partnerships locally and nationally. Having illustrated some of the major challenges public health workers face (smoking, alcohol, obesity, housing, sexually transmitted diseases, natural disasters, man-made disasters) she explained that public health workers could make a difference with planning and with contributions from the public private and third sectors. Professor Davies pointed out the variety of settings in which public health specialists are employed in the UK today ? and stressed that private sector companies are supporting the NHS and it is well worth considering working there. In summary, she said, public health needs people who are prepared to challenge the status quo, set very high standards, are not afraid of hard work, have the right mix of skills and experience, and can cope with the long march (i.e. are prepared to wait to see the impact of their efforts ? public health isn?t for you if you expect instant results!). It needs people who are committed and enthusiastic, with the courage to challenge, with confidence, and with real commitment to changing the world.

Dr Michael McBride, Chief Medical Officer, Northern Ireland, focused on the public health challenges in Northern Ireland, where the health of the population is generally very poor (except by comparison with Scotland), and where deaths from heart disease are almost the highest in Europe. Dr McBride neatly illustrated the impact of social and environmental factors on health by showing the changes in life expectancy at different stops on a bus route around Belfast. He explained the huge public health challenges presented by mental health issues and suicide, which doubles in deprived areas. He agreed with Professor Davies that public health is about doing, contributing to making a difference, and concluded that we will only be successful when we have truly embedded public health in all aspects of healthcare and can ensure that we don?t lose the critical mass of expertise and skills in the workforce.

Professor Sian Griffiths, Director of the School of Public Health and Primary Care, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, explained how she had come to work in public health and to move to Hong Kong, where there is a huge respect for the NHS, and where she put into practice the skills and principles she had learned as a trainee. Among the advice she gave was: be flexible; make use of chaos and grab opportunities; look after yourself and each other; don?t be too career-minded ? give your family some time; don?t take it too seriously ? have a sense of proportion.

In a panel session, six young people in public health roles (Health Trainer, medical student, Consultant in Public Health, Specialty Registrars in Public Health, and a Senior Public Health Researcher) each spoke concisely and enthusiastically about what they do, why they love it, and what their future aspirations are. This provided a helpful illustration of the variety of public health roles open to those from different backgrounds (including medical) and the wide range of opportunities open to them in the future.

Seven workshops were held before lunch and repeated after. One of these was a session on ?Public Health Careers You May Not Have Thought About?, where the Chair, Professor Jammi Rao, introduced the workshop by explaining that passion, commitment, drive, the ability to synthesise knowledge, write well and so on are all necessary but that you also need 5 or 6 core skills you can use to market yourself. In the private sector, he explained, you won?t be employed because of your job title but because of your skills. Speakers Anant Jani and Dr Martin Allaby then spoke about their particular public health roles ? the former working on climate change and health, who explained that the NHS is the biggest carbon emitter but doesn?t need to be; the latter working for the NHS for four days a week but devoting one day a week without pay to doing what he is really passionate about ? tackling the misery caused by corruption and the abuse of authority.

Sir Muir Gray closed the event following brief summaries of the workshops and the launch of the SPHINX website (, a Faculty of Public Health initiative to provide a means of networking and searching for and sharing public health career opportunities.

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