Washington State’s public health system is made up of skilled epidemiologists, biostatisticians, environmental health specialists, program directors and others from state and municipal government health departments, nonprofit organizations, and private healthcare systems. The Washington State Department of Health oversees branch agencies at the local level that work in concert with non-governmental organizations and contractors from the private sector to address Washington’s most pressing public health concerns.
One instance of a collaborative response to a significant public health threat in Washington State came in 2014 when some 6,000 new cases of Gonorrhea caught the attention of public health professionals in the state.
These new cases represented an alarming 40-percent increase over previous years, prompting the state’s public health community into action. Laboratory scientists, healthcare professionals, epidemiologists, biostatisticians, and health educators from the public and private sectors joined forces to respond with a strategy that involved:
- Increased monitoring for the disease
- Targeted public education campaigns based on data gathered by epidemiologists
- General education campaigns disseminated to residents throughout local county health departments
- Increased distribution of contraceptives as a preventative measure
Attracting educated and experienced professionals to the public health sector is of paramount importance. With some of the highest salaries in the country, and plenty of opportunities for employment, jobs within Washington’s public health system have become very attractive.
According to figures from the US Department of Labor released in 2014, Washington’s public health system enjoys some unique distinctions:
- Rehabilitation Counselors – Second-highest concentration of these professionals in the nation; rural Southwestern Washington offers the highest average salary for these professionals of all rural areas in the nation
- Emergency Management Directors – Third-highest average salary in the nation
- Community Health Workers – Third-highest average salary in the nation statewide, while the Tacoma metro area offers the highest average salary of all cities in the nation
- Epidemiologists – Third-highest average salary in the nation; fifth-highest total number of professionals in the nation
- Environmental Scientists and Environmental Health Scientists – third-highest concentration of these professionals in the nation statewide; Tri Cities area around Kennewick, Pasco, and Richland offers the third-highest average salary in the nation
- Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors – The Bremerton-Silverdale area has the second-highest concentration of these professionals of all metro areas in the nation
- Health Educators – The rural Northwestern Washington area offers the third-highest average salary for these professionals of all rural areas in the nation; Bremerton-Silverdale area offers the fifth-highest average salary for these professionals of all metro areas in the nation
Washington’s Public Health Professionals in Action
Funding for public health responses, research and initiatives in Washington State comes from a number of different sources. In 2015, funding included:
- $1.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to fund research at Cancer Targeted Technology in Woodinville
- $5.86 million grant from the US Department of Agriculture to promote the consumption of fruits and vegetables among Washington residents receiving food assistance
- $9.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to fund research at the Seattle Children’s Hospital
Because public health encompasses a vast field of preventative, responsive, and preparative activities, professionals working in this field come from an equally diverse background. Some examples of Washington’s public health initiatives and the dedicated professionals that made them possible include:
Response to Environmental Contamination
Environmental health scientists are particularly prevalent in the Tri Cities area, due in large part to this location’s proximity to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. This is the site where plutonium was produced for the Manhattan Project during World War II, and today is the largest and most expensive environmental cleanup project in the Western Hemisphere.
Public health professionals – including biologists, nuclear scientists, program directors, laboratory scientists, and biostatisticians to name just a few – are involved in monitoring and testing the environment surrounding the nuclear reservation. These specialists work to ensure contamination is contained and are also interested in studying the long-term effects of radioactivity on the local environment, including cases of human exposure and diseases that can be linked to radiation.
While this particular project has received international attention, public health professionals throughout Washington are also regularly involved in testing for drinking water, soil, food, and air quality statewide.
Preventative Health Measures
Public health professionals will be the first to agree that prevention is often the best means of promoting societal health. Nutritionists, healthcare specialists, and health educators throughout Washington often participate in vital programs that promote healthy lifestyles for their fellow Washingtonians. Among these are anti-smoking campaigns, exercise initiatives, health screening events, and programs that promote a healthy diet.
The recent $5.86 million grant that was awarded to the Washington State Health Department by the US Department of Agriculture will specifically promote a healthy diet for infants and youth from low-income families. Research has shown that having a nutritious diet from an early age can measurably improve cognition as well as a child’s immune system and physical health.
Getting the Right Education for a Career in Washington’s Public Health System
Virtually all public health professionals in Washington hold a bachelor’s or master’s degree related to their primary role, whether in environmental health, the behavioral sciences, health sciences, statistics or other related areas of study. Public health workers that hold the Master of Public Health (MPH) are in particularly high demand, as it is designed to prepare professionals from a number of fields for the interdisciplinary nature of working to resolve today’s most pressing public health concerns.
The Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) requires all MPH programs to be interdisciplinary so as to provide an education that covers the five core public health disciplines:
- Health policy and health administration
- Social and behavioral sciences
- Environmental health
Schools of public health and universities that offer MPH programs recognize bachelor’s degrees in virtually any major as meeting undergraduate requirements. This makes a master’s in public health the ideal choice for those who may be changing careers to pursue a job in Washington’s public health system.
Universities and schools of public health throughout Washington offer MPH degrees, very often through distance learning programs designed to accommodate work schedules.
Education requirements specified in job postings are shown here as an example of the value of an MPH and other related degrees (surveyed in May of 2015 and provided here for illustrative purposes only):
- Public Health Researcher with the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle – This position involves monitoring global health conditions; candidates must have an MPH or master’s degree in biostatistics, economics, computer science, or another related field
- Nutritionist with the Seattle and King County Public Health Department – Candidates for this position must have an MPH or a college degree in nutrition
- Nuclear Safety Engineer with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland – Candidates for this position can qualify by having a master’s degree in engineering, plus 13 years of relevant work experience
Washington’s Public Health Resources
Public health professionals in Washington work for private companies, government agencies, universities, and non-profit organizations, some of which include:
- Clark County Public Health Department
- Spokane Regional Health District
- Seattle and King County Public Health Department
- Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department
- Washington State Department of Agriculture
- Washington State Department of Ecology
- Washington Military Department, Emergency Management Division
- Washington State Department of Health (DOH)
- Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence
- Washington State Children’s Alliance
- Washington Environmental Council
- Environmental Priorities Coalition
- Healthy Washington Coalition
- Washington State Coalition of Mental Health Professionals and Consumers
- Washington State Association of Local Public Health Officials
- Washington State Public Health Association
- Washington State Nurses Association
- Washington Mental Health Counselors Association
- Washington Counseling Association
- Washington State Nutrition Association