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Public health workers gain skills, confidence thanks to online public health training program

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Among surveyed learners, 94% report gaining skills and knowledge that they can apply directly to their work. Photo: Glenn Carstens-Peters/Unsplash

In reaction to the COVID pandemic, faculty of the Cornell’s Public Health Program developed an innovative online training program to help close skills gaps in the public health workforce. Fifteen months and 521 participants later, the program has proven a huge success: 94% of the surveyed learners report gaining skills and knowledge that they can apply directly to their work, and 86% developed a better understanding of public health.

Decades of underfunding have left the public health workforce understaffed and unequipped to deliver the array of services expected of them. There is no required, standard exam to join the public health workforce, or a state or local health department, and among government public health workers, it is estimated that only 14% have a formal education in public health. These challenges were exacerbated when COVID-19 pandemic hit. In response, public health departments hired many new public health workers, further increasing the need to train the workforce.

“We have known for a long time that people in the public health workforce desire more training,” says Dr. Gen Meredith, associate director of the Public Health Program, who helped design the training program. “COVID-19 created a unique opportunity to try something new because there was an urgent need, and people were willing to try alternative approaches.”

Faculty of the Department of Public and Ecosystem Health collaborated with other public health experts across the campus and eCornell to develop and launch their fully online, “just-in-time capacity building” program.

The program, called Public Health Essentials, was designed to rapidly orient new hires and train existing public health workers who were given new responsibilities. “For example, if someone who has worked in maternal and child health for a while was now asked to do communicable disease control, we wanted to help them feel that they have the skills and the confidence to do it,” says Meredith.

The program was also designed to empower learners to immediately apply learned skills to their work, helping them feel more confident and more competent. “If you are a public health worker and you need to build trust with somebody in your community, you don’t need to go to school for three years to learn that skill,” says Meredith. “We can provide little bits of training to build critical skills right now.”

Although the program was designed and launched during COVID-19, the curriculum covers more foundational public health skills, including data-driven decision-making; health preparedness and response in the face of climate and environmental changes; and effective communication to build partnership, support and trust.

Another measure of the program’s success is its completion rate. Despite being 15 weeks long, few learners dropped out: across the whole cohort 79% completed the course. “For traditional massive online courses, the completion rate is more like 10 to 14%,” says Meredith.

Meredith attributes this success to supportive employers, active, involved course facilitators, and strong community of learning within learner cohorts.

For the duration of the course (15 to 20 weeks, depending on the cohort), participants could advance at their own pace. “There are milestones and learners need to meet them in order to graduate, but they don’t have to show up at 9 o’clock in the morning with the rest of the class,” says Meredith.

The program, co-designed by eCornell instructional designers, alternates pre-recorded videos with reading pages and assignments designed to help learners translate knowledge and skills to their own work environment. For example, learners might be asked to analyze health outcomes for different demographics in their county. “Then, we may ask, where is your county underperforming compared to state averages? What might you do to change that?” says Meredith.

By all measures, Public Health Essentials is successful: in the nine skill areas taught in the program including policy engagement, basic science, cross-sectoral partnership, strategic thinking and more, learners showed a statistically significant improvement.

Meredith is thrilled at the success of the program, knowing first-hand as a public health professional that accessible and action-oriented training resources can be highly beneficial in the field. “I have had the opportunity to be a part of public health capacity building efforts for more than 20 years. Working on this new approach with other experts united many of the best design attributes for a truly successful program,” she says.

Program participants have voiced their enthusiasm for the training: “I cannot believe the amount of material and how fast I used it since I have been hired,” wrote one learner. “The skills taught here work everywhere in almost every aspect of communication needed in my community.”

The details of the study and its results was recently published in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice.

Written by Elodie Smith