Public Health Career Spotlight: Health Policy
Are you a big picture thinker? Are you interested in politics and public health? Does changing whole systems of care, finance and prevention sound more appealing to you than affecting people one at a time? A career in health policy might be right for you.
What is health policy?
The World Health Organization defines health policy as “…decisions, plans and actions that are undertaken to achieve specific health care goals within a society.” Health policy establishes a vision for the future and a pathway to that vision with short, medium and long-term goals.
What does a health policy professional do?
Those who work in health policy spend their days thinking broadly about what is needed to design effective systems to make sweeping changes in the overall health of populations. They often collaborate with and bring community-based organizations, nonprofits, foundations and private enterprises together with governmental forces.
Health policy sometimes takes the form of law, such as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). Sometimes informally referred to as “Obamacare,” the ACA was the culmination of many years of progressive health policy in the areas of insurance coverage, health care costs and standards in care such as preventive medicine.
Health policy can also be related to specific population-level health care goals. These health policies start with a goal and then challenge the public health community to meet that goal. An example of this is the national objectives set by Healthy People 2020, which create 10-year goals to support health promotion and establish priorities for disease prevention. For example, one goal of Healthy People 2020 is to “reduce the disease and economic burden of diabetes mellitus (DM) and improve the quality of life for all persons who have, or are at risk for, DM.”
Many working in health policy spend considerable time organizing task forces, meetings and conferences with the hope of promoting their position and making new, strong connections that can benefit their issue. Networking and collaboration is especially important in policy because, as in politics, compromise and having the right team of supporters can be critical to getting new health policy off the ground. Others spend most of their time writing briefs, white papers, position statements and marketing materials — public health professionals working in health policy are usually gifted and effective writers.
Health policy professionals work in many different environments. You can find them in local, state and federal government in department of health offices. You will often find them working as aides or advisers in state or federal-level congresses or senates. Others work in a university setting in either a medical, law, public health or public policy department. Insurance companies and hospitals frequently employ high-level health policy experts in leadership positions. Finally, many private companies or foundations with interests in health policy such as Booz Allen Hamilton, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation or the World Bank often hire candidates with a health policy background.
What do those in health policy read?
People choosing to work in health policy have to keep up on many topics such as the current political climate, the work of opponents, advances in medicine and the social and economic factors that affect health. In the U.S., the preeminent resource for health policy information is Health Affairs, which is a peer-reviewed journal with a large Internet presence and a respected blog. The National Center for Policy Analysis is another popular source. Health policy professionals read major newspapers, news wires and magazines, and often take advantage of news aggregators to stay up-to-date with the ever-changing health and policy climate. Broadcast news, podcasts, video blogs and dialog conducted over social media are also an important part of the mix.
What academic background is required to work in health policy?
Successful health policy professionals have a deep understanding of public health, health care delivery, managed care, insurance, consulting and biotechnology. Most successful candidates have a Master of Public Health (MPH) or a similar degree with a focus on health policy.
An MPH provides a strong contextual framework so graduates can fully understand the needs of the people the policy will protect and the environment in which the policy exists. A Master of Public Health from an accredited institution such as the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University prepares graduates with the requisite knowledge in biostatistics, epidemiology, health promotion and disease prevention. In addition to core public health courses and program-specific courses, MPH@GW offers a concentration in Health Policy, which includes a variety of specialized courses such as Global Health Policy and Analysis, Primary Health Care Policy, Public Health and Law, and Global Health Security.
Why choose a career in health policy?
The actions of today’s health policy professionals will have far-reaching consequences for societal stability as well as individual health and suffering. The issues addressed by health policy affect us all. They affect all levels of care from the mundane to the critical. There will always be a need for smart, effective, socially conscious health policy professionals who understand and address the ever-changing concerns of our complex health care and political environment.