A Welcome Address in 10 Lessons (in Public Health)

(Version Française)

Alfred Sommer is among the greatest North American leader in public health. Born in 1942, he is Dean emeritus of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where he was in duty from 1990 to 2005. He is an epidemiologist, specialized in Global Health. He has published this year an opus which concentrates his carreer, almost a will since he is not far from retirement. Dean Pierre Buekens, from Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, New Orleans, wrote about the book that it was "part treatise on how to be an outstanding public health leader, and part adventure novel". Al Sommer has wrote a 83 page book delivering his 10 Lessons in Public Health (available for less than 15 US$ on Kindle Amazon). Let's try to summarize it here below:

1. Go where the problems are. That's what Al Sommer has done himself: trained as Epidemiologist Intelligence Officer at CDC, Atlanta, he was sent to Vietnam, then to Bangladesh (in 1970). Today, problems are not always at the end of the world, but often just in our street, providing we know how to see and to listen.

2. Get into the field. Public Health can easily become a bureaucratic job, with armchair epidemiologists, or round table expert meetings. Field work is much less comfortable, with no air conditioned, and many people suffering from diseases, poverty, that's life. Please read Sommer when fighting cholera in remote villages.

3. Forget the job description. Quoting Anthony Doerr the author says "Anyone who has spent a few nights in a tent during a storm can tell you: The world doesn't care all that much if you live or die".

4. Don't count on things staying the same. Author quotes Peter Drucker (the father of modern management I commented in previous posts, on the archives of my blog on the website of the French School of Public Health (EHESP): "What's important is not how to do things right, but how to find the right things to do". Pakistan during the 70s was particularly unstable, as Sommer mentioned, but nothing is stable today (at least nothing remains the same). 

5. Follow most, but not all, the rules.

6. Collect good data - even if you don't yet know what important questions they may answer. Quoting Peter Drucker again "Results are obtained by exploiting opportunities". It's an old argument among public health experts, between those who dismiss data collection without precise aims (=fishing expedition), and those who favor good data collection. Today, we go further ahead with Big Data, where opportunities may rise from large databases of poor quality.

7. Remember your humanity. Author quotes E.V. McCollum "Living a successful and satisfying life depends in great measure on early distinguishing between things which matter much and things which matter little".

8. Use data to set policy. Quoting Francis D. Moore "Research is like peeling an onion. You're ignorant at the start, you take off more layers, and you find it more and more concentrated: a denser and denser node of ignorance. And all the time you're weeping about how much it costs to get there"

9. If you think you're right, keep pushing. Quoting Margaret Mead "Never doubt that a single individual can change the world, it is the only thing that ever has".

10. Take the long view. Quoting Richard D. Lamm "The major factors that brought health to mankind were epidemiology, sanitation, vaccination, refrigeration, and screened windows".

If you are a young student (or even not so young), and if you envisage to have a career in public health, I advise you to read first this little book. You'll love it, since it gather fabulous skills of a storyteller who knows how to write triumph, tragedy, frustration, and elation. Enjoy your University year!

Antoine Flahault's blog (in English)

Antoine Flahault's blog (in English)

Antoine Flahault's blog. He is Faculty member, in public health, from Descartes School of Medicine, Sorbonne Paris Cité

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