Accessing untapped potential: overcoming the lack of integration of young professionals in public health practice and research

By Tobias Weitzel, Ines Siepmann and Robert Otok, ASPHER
Twitter: @tobias_weitzel @inessiepmann @ASPHERoffice  

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of a well-trained public health workforce. Yet, the next generation of public health professionals is struggling. Public health jobs are difficult to get without previous experience, many internships were cancelled, and additional experience-building opportunities disappeared due to the pandemic. This exacerbates the already existing disconnect between theory and practice in public health. We believe that the lack of integration of young professionals (i.e. students and early career professionals) into practice and research is wasted potential on a grand scale, in particular in the context of COVID-19. We can, and need, to do better during the ongoing and post-pandemic to promote our early-career professionals and thus contribute to a healthier world. Below, ASPHER and our Young Professionals (YPs) wish to share some of our experiences in addressing this challenge.   

As an association of schools, building up the next generation of public health is at ASPHER’s core and thus an integral component of the ASPHER 2025 strategy. ASPHER has decided to create more sustainable and longer-term solutions, allowing for greater involvement of young professionals. As part of the Young Professionals Programme (YPP), YP’s have played a much larger role in the Association’s activities since the beginning of the pandemic. The YP programme is a space for networking, sharing opportunities, and collaborative research, especially within the ASPHER COVID-19 task force. Some YPs undertake internships or thesis projects with ASPHER, further contributing to ASPHER’s work. In addition, several young professionals also contributed to the work of other organisations, such as the COVID-19 Health Systems Response Monitor 

At the same time, ASPHER and other public health organisations must explore ways to support young professionals in making an impact on health policy. For this purpose, ASPHER has established a fellowship programme awarding funded fellowships that allow individuals to focus on research and advocacy on specific public health challenges. In addition, associate fellowship positions are available to member-based early career researchers with an interest in contributing to the ASPHER agenda. Our current fellow Rana Orhan supports the implementation of climate and health education in schools of public health and is currently working on putting this topic on the agenda of the European Commission. Her initiative “Adaptation actions on climate change and health through education and training” has been selected among the top contenders to become a Thematic Network of the EU Health Policy Platform (register now at the EU Health Policy Platform and learn more about Rana’s initiative). 

ASPHER member schools are also individually engaging in activities to address the challenge of integration of young professionals; here some examples. The University Vita-Salute San Raffaele (see p. 11) and University College Dublin (see p. 8) boosted local public health resources by facilitating the integration of public health and medical students into COVID-19 research, contact tracing and outbreak investigation. The Poznan University of Medical Sciences has launched COVID-19 student volunteering projects allowing students to support response activities across various levels of the health system, such as the Sanitary and Epidemiological Inspection offices. Integrating Young Professionals into Association work has enabled ASPHER and its member schools to benefit from their energy, curiosity, and unique perspectives while giving YPs an opportunity to gain relevant experience.  

ASPHER, its members, and the few other organisations offering such opportunities for young professionals do not have unlimited resources and of course, are not able to accommodate all young professionals who wish to contribute. Thus, ASPHER welcomes more opportunities, synergies between existing programmes, and similar initiatives for young public health professionals on the European level, ensuring all young public health professionals have pathways to gain experience and allowing us all to tap into their potential.

Disclaimer: the opinions – including possible policy recommendations – expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of EPHA. The mere appearance of the articles on the EPHA website does not mean an endorsement by EPHA. 

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