BY Peter Olsen Phillips18 May 2022, 12:36
The campus of George Washington University, seen in May 2020. (Photo by Saul Loeb – AFP/Getty Images)
Like many people considering a Master of Public Health (MPH), I was overwhelmed by the number of concentrations and career paths when I first started researching this field. Even with one goal in mind – I want to improve people’s access to health care – I didn’t know where I would fit into the larger public health picture and whether I would be best suited to work as an epidemiologist, community health professional, or environmental health professional, to name a few.
Ultimately, I relied on my lived experience with chronic illness and a volunteer position at a community health organization to inform my decision to focus my MPH in health policy.
My journey into public health has been a detour. After working as a journalist for eight years, I will be enrolling in an MPH program this fall. A reflection on my career goals led me to this career change. Professionally, I have always placed great importance on the impact of my work – I wanted it to positively affect a large number of people – but I was frustrated when a story or investigation did not lead to tangible change. . It’s important to me that future roles more directly improve the lives of others, but I didn’t know where to start.
The outbreak of a long-term rare disease and the resulting difficulties in navigating between public and private health insurance helped to crystallize my projects. I wanted to take the leap into public health and find ways to encourage systemic change in health care coverage and help others gain easier access to needed health services than I could. Here’s how I landed on my MPH focus.
Think about your goals and skills
When choosing a concentration, I found it important to reflect on both my passions and my skills. I had to ask myself where in population health I most wanted to see change and how my skills and experiences could best be used to effect change.
Due to pain from a rare spinal abnormality, I had quit a full-time job to face a seemingly endless procession of medical appointments and tests. Along the way, I got a glimpse of the many frustrations associated with health care coverage: denied procedures, the enormous cost of COBRA coverage, and the many bureaucratic failures of Medicaid. Finding a doctor who understood my symptoms while negotiating a change in insurance coverage, denied claims, and immense costs was exceptionally difficult, even though I had resources like employer-sponsored insurance and a family. who supported me.
I was struck by the cumbersomeness of the process for patients who do not have these resources to find and pay for decent care. Simply put, the experiences gave me an emotional connection to the issue of access to health care in this country.
Knowing the issue I was most passionate about helped organize the rest of my decision-making process. I spent time thinking about which concentrations might fit well with my work experiences. With a background in data journalism, I tend to think about issues from a statistical or empirical perspective. Additionally, I believe that accurate data and good analysis lead to informed decision-making. Finally, I have experience writing, speaking with subject matter experts, and reviewing policy documents.
This combination of my interests and experience steered me towards a concentration that suited me well: health policy. In my studies, I will learn more about the development and evaluation of policies that affect the health of the population.
My decision wasn’t confirmed, however, until I gained first-hand experience in community health and had the chance to speak with counselors and practitioners at several institutions to learn more about this concentration.
Gain hands-on experience and contact potential schools
The Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health recommended that prospective MPH students gain practical and professional health-related experience before applying to a program, if possible. My experience working in the field of population health – volunteering in a community health organization based in Washington, DC – confirmed that I was on the right track. By participating in a mobile needle exchange that also distributes food and condoms, I have seen firsthand how many people are effectively excluded from our current health care system and forced to survive on the margins.
This direct community work was personally deeply meaningful and underscored my desire to tackle systemic changes to make the system more equitable and accessible. It also motivated me to pursue more information about the health policy specialization.
Knowing that I should stay in the Washington, DC area, and would prefer a residential program to an online program, I narrowed down my list of potential schools. For each of the schools on my shortlist, I made sure to attend in-person and online events, asking about program programs and job opportunities. During my first in-person visit, I had the chance to meet admissions counselors and hear from current students about their studies and internships – and this experience solidified my first choice of school and concentration. .
After a lengthy application process and after evaluating each institution’s financial aid programs, I decided to take the MPH Health Policy Program at George Washington University. I am excited to explore the career opportunities offered by my studies at the heart of federal policymaking and to be able to connect my personal experiences to our most pressing policy debates.
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