Policymaker earns MPH seeking better health outcomes for his state

Scott Holcomb

Scott Holcomb

Master’s Student, Online Population and Health Sciences Degree Program; Democratic Representative for the 81st District, State of Georgia

Scott Holcomb needs to balance attending office hours with his professors with office hours for his constituents; he's both a master's of public health student and an elected representative in the State House of Georgia. Holcomb has been a member of the Georgia House of Representative since 2011 and is now serving in his seventh term.

In the last few years, Holcomb has been working toward completing his Master of Public Health from the University of Michigan School of Public Health while continuing his public service because he recognized a need—his own, and among his political body—for public health knowledge. 

“I'm in the unique position where I already have a job that lets me use this knowledge in a real world way: to influence policy for a state of 11 million people,” said Holcomb, who will soon complete the MPH program through the fully online Population and Health Sciences program.

It was essential to Holcomb to know he was participating in a high-quality program at a top-institution—that’s what would make the investment of time worthwhile for the busy legislator—and he believed the University of Michigan could deliver. But above everything else, he needed the flexibility of a program offered completely online.

“I just can't take a week or two weeks off to attend classes," he said. “As crazy as it seems, it was easier for me to virtually be in Ann Arbor than it was to be at a university a few miles from my house.

“I'm extremely grateful for the support of my professors during this journey. There were times when my schedule was really challenging, but they worked with me so that I could be successful in completing the coursework.”

But, when it comes down to it, Georgia is the reason for this pursuit. Holcomb believes when it comes to making policy decisions a public health foundation can help improve real issues in his state.

“Georgia has very poor health outcomes on almost every metric that matters,” Holcomb said. “We’re typically in the bottom 10 of national rankings on any measure. It's been like that for a long time. What I saw at the state level was an absence of expertise in understanding a lot of these issues. I saw an opportunity not only to deepen my own personal understanding but, through earning a Master of Public Health, to be able to help influence our policy.” 

I decided it was important to learn more to be a better advocate. I wanted to influence policy in a way that could try to change our outcomes.

“I decided it was important to learn more to be a better advocate. I wanted to influence policy in a way that could try to change our outcomes in those rankings,” said Holcomb, who doesn’t take on a task half-heartedly.

In 2020, the lifelong learner began his public health journey after already earning a bachelor’s degree, a law degree and master’s degrees in business administration and public administration— in addition to years of service in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps. It became important for him to also gain public health expertise because through his role in state government he said he saw the importance of health but realized that he had a limited understanding of how health was actually connected to nearly every policy issue.

Taking on a degree at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic—and in the middle of a political term—isn’t something one does on a whim. 

“I'm earning this degree because I want to use it to inform my policy work,” he said. Every educational pursuit has been a pragmatic choice toward a specific goal, and earning his master’s degree in public health is no different. 

His commitment to that goal has kept him going through the Population and Health Sciences Program, the pandemic and even some particularly challenging courses. Plus, he’s already begun to see that effort pay off. 

“From the start, everything that I have been able to learn has helped to inform the way that I do my job as a legislator,” he said. “I can take what I've learned and immediately apply it and use it to inform the questions that I ask on committees, how I look at legislation and also to generate ideas for legislation. I now feel like I have the foundation to be more engaged in these issues.”

Health influences everything within the state.

The lessons he’s learned have simply confirmed what he already knew to be true, “that health influences everything within the state,” but now he is solidly grounded in how it all works together, he said.

He struggled with epidemiology material, the biostatistics course was a bit challenging, and he discovered things about public health that he hadn’t thought about before, he said.. The Master of Publich Health program challenged him academically, to dig deeper and in ways that he now recognizes have helped him become a better leader. 

“It's definitely helped me to do my job better,” Holcomb said. “The truth is, before studying public health, I would lean on individuals that I thought were sort of the experts in health, as opposed to really trying to figure it out on my own. Now, I have the capacity to figure it out on my own and I have a lot more confidence with the subject matter.”

“I can better articulate what I believe, why I believe it and also have support for the position. I know what questions to ask, and I know how to call out nonsense if somebody is offering a bad idea.”

In his line of work, this ability to fact-check is an essential skill. He said he is proud of his ability to navigate through data in a landscape of lobbyists’ agendas. 

“Before, I would not have been able to tell you what a P-value meant or what statistically significant or insignificant meant, whereas now I can skim through research papers and understand it really fast,” Holcomb said. “With lobbyists, they’ll often give us these one-pagers and they’ll say things like, ‘20% X’, or ‘a Y return of investment if you invest in this program’. They don't give me those anymore because when they do, I will ask them, OK, where's the underlying data? What was your methodology? Can I see it?’” 

The variety of topics in which Holcomb is now knowledgeable within public health have also spurred initiatives of his own. 

“One of the things that I'm trying to push is a refundable earned income tax credit,” he said after a course on food insecurity encouraged him to consider the status of food security in his own state. “We have over a million families every night that are food insecure in my state, and that really bothers me.” 

The research Holcomb did in that course helped him connect the dots on a potential plan to use income tax credits to help alleviate food insecurity that he’s currently building support for. 

He’s also been able to dive into research and efforts around climate change issues, social determinants of health and, of course, improving health policy. 

“I think in every single course that I've studied, I've been able to use it in some way with the work that I do,” Holcomb said.

While connecting politics with public health has empowered his own work, Holcomb said there is a lot of work to do to get those priorities aligned on a larger scale. 

“I think so few policy makers really understand health and health policy, which is a shame because they're the ones who are tasked with implementing our policies,” he said. “In part, I think that’s why we have the outcomes that we do—it's an issue of a massive lack of understanding across all levels of government.”

The public health insight Holcomb has gained has offered clarity on where he and his colleagues should be focusing their efforts. 

“What I understand now is that policymakers focus so much on the healthcare side when things go wrong, but we do the bare minimum in terms of trying to help people on the front end,” he said. “And, what's frustrating, is that we know what works in terms of investing in education, in terms of building safer communities that people can be active in, but we don't do it.”

If you want to live a life of good work and of service, I really can't think of a better way to spend your time than working on health and trying to improve population health.

The Georgia Representative is prudent but optimistic.

 “You have to play the long game,” Holcomb said. “These changes take time; they take commitment; they take perseverance. But they're worth the effort in the end.”

Despite that long game, Holcomb has high hopes for what he’ll be able to accomplish in improving health policy as he moves forward in his career. “What excites me about health policy is that if you can implement a change, you can potentially impact — in a very significant way — the lives of individuals and the people that they love. Even if it’s 1 or 2% of a population of millions, that's a massive number of people that you're helping.”

“If you want to live a life of good work and of service, I really can't think of a better way to spend your time than working on health and trying to improve population health.”