Career Watch: Public Health Advocacy
The role of an advocate is critical in advancing change in population health policy—whether on a local, state, federal, or global level. Increasingly, the ability to effectively articulate a message to policymakers, as well as the media and other stakeholders who actively engage in the policy process, can determine success or failure for an organization or cause. Particularly in an era of shrinking budgets, public health advocates must be able to demonstrate the value of programs and activities—a key challenge, when successful public health endeavors are often invisible and difficult to measure. An additional challenge is the lack of understanding of what actually comprises public health: most policymakers do not distinguish between public health (with its focus on interventions that affect the health of populations) and the traditional definition of health care (with a "medical" focus on individual diagnosis and treatment).
Unlike lobbyists, who are typically hired to achieve a specific outcome by influencing legislation, advocates primarily strive to educate policymakers by providing data and informing the debate on an issue. Advocacy activities may include meeting with policymakers and staff, providing testimony before a legislative body, writing letters, or using social media to share information. An effective advocate masters the substance of the issue as well as the process by which the issue will be determined, and also develops strong relationships with relevant policymakers and stakeholders.
Public health advocacy can include everything from working with a nonprofit organization to being a government relations liaison for a university or foundation. Many public health advocates focus on niche issues such as specific diseases or segments of the population, while some organizations focus on all components of public health advocacy. Due to term limits at both the state and federal levels, there are always opportunities for advocacy, as policymakers constantly need to be educated on new data and information relevant to their constituencies.
Effective advocates must be able to translate complex data into concise, easily understood, compelling documents that explain the nuances of a given issue—often in just one page. They must be able to respond quickly to inquiries about the issue at hand, and be familiar with the process necessary to advance the goal. Advocates must also be excellent at building relationships and coalitions. It is often helpful to have hands-on experience working in the legislative or other body they're trying to influence. It's important to understand how public policy and government work. A university degree in these areas is not necessary.
"This is a terrific time to be in public health advocacy. As all sectors of the health
community are adapting to a post-reform era, we are at a pivotal moment in sharing
our story with policymakers so that population health is viewed as an essential part
of the delivery system."
—Jenifer Martin, JD, Director, Government Relations, U-M SPH
Advocacy Clinic in 2013
The U-M SPH Government Relations Office will launch a Public Health Advocacy Clinic for SPH students and faculty in January 2013.