COVID-19 and the future of Public Health

15th May 2020

For the first time in 20 years, I don’t have to explain to my friends what I’ve been doing for most of my adult life: that public health is a broad discipline bringing together all possible elements to protect and improve the  health of communities (however you define them). It’s a great shame that the spotlight on public health is due to a global pandemic, but for better or worse, the discipline is firmly in the headlines. This unusual situation has prompted me to consider how public health will evolve, and how leveraging innovation is the best way through this crisis and beyond.

 

Two factors initially drew me to public health:

1. The blend of so-called ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences appealed to the left and right sides of my brain; and

2. I’d finally found a discipline that was committed to improving things rather than observing and reporting on the status quo.

 

Over the next few decades, my career took me through different public health contexts, countries and cultures, from community health promotion and health service planning to training, research and academia. Most recently I’ve moved into the innovation space, where I use every skill I’ve ever learned working on the challenging problems our clients commission us to solve. I’m still a public health practitioner and I still work in holistic teams, but there’s a whole new canvas to explore. As I used to tell my students, ‘public health is everywhere’.

I’ve been answering questions on many aspects of the crisis from professional associates and clients, and I wanted to clarify how COVID-19 is driving public health innovation. In particular, I hope that these innovations remain and continue to develop when the crisis is over:

 

Rapid research responses. Rarely are public health initiatives conceived and launched within days, but recent necessity has encouraged speed – speed from ethics boards in reviewing projects, speed in reviewing research outputs, and speed in publishing findings. Without compromising ethics or quality, rapid research will lead to more timely findings feeding into actionable results and policy.

Improved public-health knowledge base. Professors of epidemiology have a more mainstream audience and are now standing alongside politicians. Journalists are (mostly) conversant with the science behind epidemics, and the population as a whole seems to have an appetite for health self-improvement, opening the door for improved health literacy and enhanced health communications programmes.

New collaborations. The need for fast decision-making in a rapidly changing environment like the current crisis has led to new collaborations across the varied organisations that think about research. For example, we can better utilise the skills and strengths of corporate R&D departments to improve our understanding of people, behaviour and improving public health?

Better understanding of how to obtain and process relevant data. Public health, by definition, requires data, and while there are talented research groups that do modelling and bioinformatics, public health practitioners have tended to rely on limited types and sources of data such as patient records, death certificates and surveys. We need to understand under what circumstances people are most willing to volunteer their own data to contribute to improving community health (even after after the current crisis). Moreover, we need to know what to do with these data to ensure we get the most out of them. Can we encourage the new generation of computer science students to view public health as a desirable career choice? Can we ensure that all our new public health courses include modules on new ways of collecting and evaluating data, reflecting the huge progress that has been made recently in data science and machine learning?

 

The crisis is accelerating innovation in all areas, not least public health. It has exposed our weaknesses as a society and shown why interdisciplinary working is vital. COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of timely data and will create new conversations about how effective and ethical research can be done at scale and at speed. There has never been a greater demand for innovation and creativity, and with new kinds of partnerships flourishing, we might just emerge in 2021 with renewed momentum to improve the world’s health.

 

WRITTEN BY: Fiona McMaster

Dr Fiona McMaster is an innovation consultant at Innovia Technology where she manages and contributes to projects that involve behaviour change or primary research. Before moving into consulting, Fiona was a public health researcher and academic and taught university courses in communicable disease management, epidemiology, health behaviour change and motivational interviewing.