(COLLEGE STATION, TX) — Ciro Sumaya, M.D., M.P.H.T.M., founding dean of the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Rural Public Health, was one of four panelists at a Capitol Hill hearing today on the public health work force shortage.

The hearing in Washington, D.C., follows a recently completed assessment of the public health work force by the Association of Schools of Public Health. The assessment found more than 250,000 additional public health workers are needed by 2020.

Public health doctors and nurses, epidemiologists, and health care educators and administrators protect people from communicable diseases, prevent environmental hazards and chronic diseases, and help communities with disaster preparation. However, public health experts agree there are not enough trained public health workers today, and the situation is expected to worsen unless action occurs.

“Tackling the health implications of tobacco use, heart disease, obesity and physical inactivity, not to mention the threat of globally spreading infectious diseases, depends entirely on the availability of a well-trained public health work force,” Dr. Sumaya said. “Unless we act now to increase the quality and quantity of public health professionals, we will soon be ill-equipped to identify public health crises and respond decisively.”

An estimated 23 percent of the current public health work force – almost 110,000 workers – will become eligible for retirement during the next presidential term. The analysis also noted schools of public health will have to graduate three times as many public health workers during the next 12 years to meet worldwide health care needs in 2020.

Given the growing complexity of public health challenges, the panel said more specialists will need to be trained in additional public health sub-disciplines. And, in the era of globalization, the U.S. public health work force needs to be adequately prepared to handle health threats that often arise from beyond the nation’s borders.

“These shortages have very real impacts,” Dr. Sumaya said. “Fewer public health nurses mean fewer breast cancer screenings. Not enough epidemiologists make it harder to track emerging diseases like MRSA (drug-resistant staph infections). And, Hurricane Katrina made clear the importance of public health workers in responding to natural disasters. Denying a problem doesn’t mitigate the staggering impacts on the physical, mental and financial health of our communities.”

Other panel members with Dr. Sumaya were Dean Linda Rosenstock of the University of California at Los Angeles School of Public Health, Commissioner Earl Hunter of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, and Dean Michael Klag of the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The Texas A&M Health Science Center provides the state with health education, outreach and research. Its seven colleges located in communities throughout Texas are Baylor College of Dentistry, the College of Medicine, the College of Nursing, the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, the Institute of Biosciences and Technology, the Irma Lerma Rangel College of Pharmacy, and the School of Rural Public Health.

— Rae Lynn Mitchell