Cornell program boosted health workers’ skills, confidence

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, faculty in Cornell’s Public Health Program developed an innovative online training program to help boost skills in the public health workforce. A study recently published in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice reports that 94% of participants gained skills and knowledge they could apply directly to their work, and 86% developed a better understanding of public health.

“We have known for a long time that people in the public health workforce desire more training,” said Gen Meredith, professor of practice in the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Public and Ecosystem Health and associate director of the Cornell Master of Public Health (MPH) Program, who helped design the program and led the study. “COVID-19 created a unique opportunity to try something new because there was an urgent need, and people were willing to try alternative approaches.”

Decades of underfunding have left the public health workforce understaffed and unequipped to deliver the array of services expected of them. No standard exam is required to join this workforce or a state or local health department, and only an estimated 14% of government public health workers have a formal education in the field. These challenges were exacerbated by the pandemic, when public health departments hired many new workers, further increasing the need for training.

Faculty in the Department of Public and Ecosystem Health collaborated with other public health experts across campus and eCornell to develop and launch their fully online, capacity-building program, called Public Health Essentials.

The program was designed to rapidly orient new hires and train existing public health workers who were given new responsibilities.

“For example, if someone who has worked in maternal and child health for a while was now asked to do communicable disease control, we wanted to help them feel that they have the skills and the confidence to do it,” Meredith said.

The program was also designed to empower public health workers to immediately apply learned skills to their work, helping them feel more confident and competent.

“If you are a public health worker and you need to build trust with somebody in your community, you don’t need to go to school for three years to learn that skill,” Meredith said. “We can provide little bits of training to build critical skills right now.”

Although the program was designed and launched during the pandemic, the curriculum covers more foundational public health skills, including data-driven decision-making; health preparedness and response in the face of climate and environmental changes; and effective communication to build partnership, support and trust.

The program, co-developed by eCornell instructional designers, alternated pre-recorded videos with readings and assignments designed to help participants transfer knowledge and skills to their own work environment. For example, learners might be asked to analyze health outcomes for different demographics in their county.

“Then, we may ask, where is your county underperforming compared to state averages? What might you do to change that?” Meredith said.

The completion rate for the 15-month program’s 521 participants was 79%, compared to “traditional massive online courses,” in which the rate is closer to 10 to 14%, Meredith said.

Meredith attributed this success to supportive employers, active, involved course facilitators and strong community of learning within the program cohorts.

Depending on the cohort, the courses lasted 15 to 20 weeks, and participants could advance at their own pace.

“There are milestones and learners need to meet them in order to graduate, but they don’t have to show up at 9 o’clock in the morning with the rest of the class,” Meredith said.

According to the study, participants showed a statistically significant improvement in the nine skill areas taught in the program, including policy engagement, basic science, cross-sectoral partnership, strategic thinking and more.

“I have had the opportunity to be a part of public health capacity-building efforts for more than 20 years,” Meredith said. “Working on this new approach with other experts united many of the best design attributes for a truly successful program.”

Program participants have voiced their enthusiasm for the training as well.

“I cannot believe the amount of material and how fast I used it since I have been hired,” one learner wrote. “The skills taught here work everywhere in almost every aspect of communication needed in my community.”

Elodie Smith is a communications specialist for the Institute of Biotechnology.

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Kaitlyn Serrao