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Pierce County Students Explore Public Health Careers

A program for high school students in Pierce County, Washington, is uniquely positioned to help future public health workers adapt to the changing health system.

A program for high school students in Pierce County, Washington, is uniquely positioned to help future public health workers adapt to the changing health system.

June 6, 2013

The Affordable Care Act and the upcoming changes to the nation’s health system are top of mind for both public health practitioners and clinical providers. Although there is a lot of discussion around the integration of public health and medical care, few know exactly how it will work. One key question is how to foster collaboration between the separately trained workforces.

A new program for high school students in Pierce County, Washington, is uniquely positioned to help future public health workers and clinical providers collaborate with each other. The program is called Medical Explorers and its mission is to provide students with hands-on experiences and leadership opportunities across the health field.

Public health veterans Jack Conway and Shirley Carstens are leading the program and overseeing its transition from the Tacoma General Hospital to the Pierce County Medical Reserve Corps.

Conway, a retired public health professional and former dean, says an important change will take place when the health department assumes responsibility for the group. He explains, “The club’s previous curriculum focused exclusively on clinical care and career paths in hospitals. We’ve decided to broaden the activities to include more public health concepts and other health career options.”

Both Conway and Carstens are dedicated to mentoring future public health leaders but they admit it isn’t easy. One reason is the low-profile, behind-the-scenes nature of prevention work. Most students do not recognize public health activities in their community and don’t see the field as a possible career path.

Carstens believes the lack of public health in prime time television also contributes to this thinking. She explains, “Students tell us the excitement they see on medical dramas makes them want to be emergency room doctors. Unlike lawyers, cops, and doctors, there are no public health dramas on TV to draw them in.” She continues, “We have to open them up and show them the drama and excitement of working in public health.”

The club aims to keep students engaged by providing plenty of hands-on experiences. At the April meeting they learned about emergency preparedness by participating in a mock disaster drill, acting as patients and administering first aid. In May they learned about surgery by visiting the hospital’s robotic lab and removing objects from inside a manikin.

Carstens acknowledges that it is hard to compete with robots, but she believes public health has an advantage—real people in real life situations. She explains, “When students worked with the Homeless Connect Program they saw immediate, positive feedback from the participants. That was rewarding, and it will keep them coming back.”

Other hands-on ideas for next year’s activities include: conducting helmet fittings at bike rodeos, taking vital signs at health fairs, and passing out tobacco prevention materials.

As the detailed planning for next year moves forward, Conway keeps the big picture in mind. He is building a club that will expand students’ understanding of public health topics and teach them the relationships between public health and the medical system. Indeed, the landscape of our health system is changing, and some Pierce County students are lucky to be among its first explorers.

Tacoma’s Medical Explorers is now recruiting. The program will start in the fall of 2013 and coincide with the school year. For more information contact Shirley Carstens at shirleycarstens@comcast.net.

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