UC Berkeley News
Press Release

UC Berkeley Press Release

More public health professionals needed to avert crisis, warns new report

– While natural disasters, the threat of bioterrorism and other health threats are taking their toll on public health resources, the United States is facing a major public health workforce crisis that could impact the health of each and every American unless there is an immediate influx of funding for recruitment and training of public health professionals, according to a report issued today (Wednesday, Feb. 27) by the Association of Schools of Public Health (ASPH).

The report, a first-of-its-kind assessment of the crisis, found that more than 250,000 additional public health workers are needed by 2020. Experts at the University of California, Berkeley's School of Public Health, a member of ASPH, confirm that the crisis will impact California.

The crisis is a culmination of already documented and forecasted shortages of public health physicians, public health nurses, epidemiologists, health care educators and administrators, along with other contributing factors, like an expected spike in retirement, the ASPH analysis says. In fact, 23 percent of the current workforce - almost 110,000 workers - will become eligible to retire during the next presidential term, according to the report.

California has the largest elderly population in the nation, and this group is expected to grow at more than twice the rate of the total population between now and 2020. With aging comes increased prevalence of chronic illnesses and the emergence of other needs served by the public health system, as well as depletion of the public health workforce itself due to retirement. In California, 50 percent of the governmental public health workforce is scheduled to retire within the next five years, according to University of California data.

In addition, the existing public health workforce in California is "seriously deficient in training, preparation and size," according to a 2007 report by the University of California President's Advisory Council. Of the state's 38 public health laboratories, only 10 are led by directors with doctoral degrees, as mandated by law, say UC Berkeley public health experts.

"The documented national shortage is magnified here in California, given the size and diversity of our state," said Stephen M. Shortell, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. "In addition to shortages, it is estimated that only 20 percent of the current public health workforce in the state has any formal training in public health. Among the nation's top ten schools of public health, UC Berkeley is the smallest, with many deserving students turned away. With appropriate funding and support, we can double our capacity over the coming decade and help meet the state's needs."

Leading health organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Public Health Association, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials and the Institute of Medicine, agree that the current workforce is inadequate to meet the needs of U.S. and global populations. Given the growing complexity of public health challenges, more specialists will need to be trained in additional public health sub-disciplines, the ASPH report says. Furthermore, it says, the U.S. public health workforce in this era of globalization needs to be adequately prepared to handle health threats that often arise from beyond our borders.

In order to address these significant shortages, the ASPH is calling for increased federal investment in public health education and training, in addition to the coordination of a centralized enumeration effort to adequately understand current and future workforce needs.

"An appropriate number of well-trained public health professionals is critical in order to safeguard the health of our nation and our world," said Dr. Harrison Spencer, president and chief executive officer of the ASPH. "Our government and our schools of public health need to play a critical role in preventing the forecasted shortage."

Additionally, increased recruitment, training and fellowship programs, financial aid assistance and expanded graduate-level opportunities are among the most urgent needs for averting this looming crisis, according to the analysis. Schools of public health will have to graduate three times as many public health workers over the next 12 years in order to meet the health care needs of the world in 2020, it says.

The Association of Schools of Public Health contributed to this report.