Going viral

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 March, 2012, 12:00am


From the heated public debate around the number of pregnant mainland women coming to Hong Kong to give birth, to the legionella outbreak at the government's new Tamar site, public health issues are never far from the city's headlines.

But how do public healthcare professionals begin to tackle problems of such immense scope and complexity?

According to assistant professor Kim Jean-hee, co-director of the master of public health programme at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), the three fundamental qualities required in this field are 'technical competence, imagination and guts.' And, she adds, 'a can-do attitude is absolutely essential.'

'Most of the public health issues that we are grappling with are at the intersection of many public health areas, such as health service management, law, technology, policy, social behaviour and medical ethics,' says Kim. 'Public health solutions usually require complex systems-level thinking.'

'All the issues we are concerned about, such as air pollution, smoking and the long waiting list of patients with cataracts, can all be thought about within the framework of need, demand and supply,' says Dr Janice Johnston, deputy head for education at the University of Hong Kong's (HKU) School of Public Health.

'The challenge facing healthcare professionals in Hong Kong is understanding how these factors interrelate and intermesh, so we can provide a healthcare service delivery model that satisfies the population,' Johnston adds.

The HKU also runs a master of public health course. Both the HKU and CUHK programmes can be followed on a one-year full-time or two-year part-time basis, and both cover public health fundamentals, such as epidemiology, biostatistics, environmental health, health policy and management, and health and social behaviour.

However, Kim and Johnston think practitioners in this field need more than just technical expertise.

'Most people don't think of public health as a creative field,' says Kim. 'But public health workers are shooting at moving targets, [meaning] they have to be adaptable and quick on their feet.'

Johnston also sees the work of public healthcare professionals primarily in terms of problem solving. To aid them in this task, she believes they need to see the bigger picture, so they can then assess an individual patient's problems in relation to those of others in the population. They also need practical data-analysis and situational assessment skills.

To help students develop their ability to grasp the breadth and depth of challenges they may face, the HKU master features a public health practice component. This consists of three, one-week exercises, during which they evaluate data, develop hypotheses, and, eventually, come to a solution for a realistic problem.

'The best people working in the public health field are those who still have some patient contact,' she adds. 'It keeps them grounded.'

With this in mind, the students on the HKU master's are sent out to gain practical experience.

Similarly, the CUHK programme emphasises a community-based and very 'hands-on' approach to public health. 'We offer field action labs in rural villages in China and visits to international disaster sites, to allow students to see public health in action,' Kim explains.

Globalisation has only served to accelerate the pace of change in the public health field. However, to ensure they keep up with new developments, both the HKU and the CUHK programmes are taught by faculty members engaged in the latest front-line research.

Kim identifies three types of applicants for master's of public health programmes.

'First, mid-career clinical professionals who are seeking to advance to managerial positions. Secondly, fresh university graduates in a variety of fields who want to leverage their undergraduate training, towards a career that improves the health of populations. And, finally, mid-career professionals in non-clinical professions - such as teachers and management consultants - who wish to change careers,' Kim says.

Johnston explains: 'It is particularly important to get new graduates of 22 or 23 years out to practicum placements in the community, whether it be working with an NGO or with nurses in a hospital, or on environmental health or food and hygiene projects.'

She sees growing demand for public health professionals both in Hong Kong and, particularly, on the mainland. 'Our contacts in China are desperate to get people who are better trained in the public health sciences. They have so many unique problems in China, and many of those come from their delivery model,' Johnston says.

'Our graduates end up in a wide range of careers,' says Kim. 'Often they'll choose to work for the government, NGOs, insurance firms, pharmaceutical corporations, private healthcare firms, schools or research institutes.'