Embodying Knowledge: Leading Public Health

Imagine it is 1747 and you’re a surgeon in the British Royal Navy. You just returned from voyage where you experimented with several popular cures for the dreaded disease of scurvy, and you discovered that diets with citrus fruits were effective treatments. What do you do? How do you bring the idea to scale? How do you change policies within the Royal Navy and every Captain’s food choices?

It took over 100 years for the proper treatment of scurvy to be disseminated, scaled, and implemented across the Royal Navy. Many sailors died due to the delay. Today, the problems of public health are larger - climate change, war, and international migration to name a few. The world needs faster, better solutions. Yet, we face the same, basic questions: how do we scale up solutions? How do we disseminate information? How do we enable change?

For those who desire a healthier world, the skills to answer these questions are paramount. As students and alumni of the Harvard DrPH program, we believe the solution lies beyond what is normally taught in public health schools. In addition to being technical experts, future leaders will need to be able to brand ideas, forge partnerships, breakdown silos, and enable large scale change. As Karen DeSalvo has famously written, new approaches to public health are needed -a public health 3.0. We use the term ‘leadership’ to encapsulate these new skills.  

Why now? Because the world is dealing with ‘wicked problems,’ a term first coined over 50 years ago by C. West Churchman, a Stanford Management Professor. Churchman wrote about problems that are ill-formulated, full of ambiguous, undefined information, contain stakeholders with conflicting values, and where the the repercussions within the larger environment are confusing. Our public health problems have many of these features. An example is the opioid crisis: there is patchy, delayed information, a diverse set of stakeholders with interests ranging from criminal enforcement to mental support, and contextualized in communities throughout the US. Wicked, indeed.  

When first writing of ‘wicked problems,’ Churchman called for a new approach that did not rely on scientific research. This sentiment was echoed recently by the intellectual Francis Fukuyama. He writes, “being skilled in policy analysis is woefully inadequate to bring about policy change in the real world.” We believe the answer is to improve our leadership skills.

But public health leadership lacks a venue to discuss, share, and learn ideas. This website looks to fill that need by being a forum for professionals and students of public health to read stories and anecdotes of best (and worst) practices in order to improve our leadership skills.

Eric Coles

Eric is DrPH student at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. He has a Masters in Public Administration from the London School of Economics and was a policy analyst at the National Institutes of Health before going back to school.