How Did I Even Get Into Public Health?: A Message to Those "On the Fence" | Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis
Steven Hayworth
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How Did I Even Get Into Public Health?: A Message to Those "On the Fence"

In my very short tenure as a public health candidate, I have noticed an interesting phenomenon within the Brown School: namely, few, if any, of our students or faculty can say their path to public health was direct! Most, in fact, say that they “kind of stumbled into it.” At first I thought this was unique to the Brown School because of our immense focus on transdisciplinary education, research, and practice. What better way to maintain that nature of our School than to bring people together from all sorts of varied backgrounds? But, thinking back on it, who have been the biggest movers and shakers in public health? John Snow, Florence Nightingale, and (at least in the United States) Lyndon Johnson are just a few that have one thing in common: none of them were trained as public health officials! Granted those were different times when public health was less formalized, but the idea that all of these individuals, despite their different professions and experiences, caused some the biggest shifts in population level health to date is absolutely fascinating.

So, it’s not that the Brown School just wants people from varied backgrounds, rather it’s that public health needs them! Therefore: I thought I would share with you a blurb from my own life and the story of how I ended up interested in public health, because, believe it or not, when I was a child, the glamour and riches of being a firefighter/pro-skateboarder/astronaut/physician (all at the same time) caught my eye a little bit more than public health. Now, however, it’s totally in the reverse, except for that physician bit…I still want to do that.

So really up until my senior year of undergrad, I was very much on the pre-med track (and in many ways am still).  I thought this was the only and most obvious way to seriously impact healthcare domestically and abroad.  I fumbled my way through Organic Chemistry, I shadowed physicians, I volunteered in hospitals, I did community service, I was a tutor, I worked on research projects, I pretty much checked off all of the boxes. But something didn’t quite feel right. It was like there was something still missing. But during my junior year study abroad experience in Berlin (yes, that’s right…I was a German and Pre-Med major, because those oh-so naturally go together), I had the wonderful opportunity to intern in two of Germany’s most prestigious hospitals: Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin as a neurology intern and the Deutsches Rotes Kreuz – Kliniken Westend in Berlin (the German Red Cross) as a cardiology intern.

These experiences allowed me get the full medical school/residency experience. I was able to go on rounds, sit in on physician meetings; I learned to take blood, help with minor procedures, the whole shebang. That was all well and good, but I quickly discovered some reoccurring problems with our medical system. Despite Germans being perceived as the overall picture of health, the average Berliner (no, not the doughnut) smokes like a chimney. That includes not only our patients, but also our nursing staff and even some physicians. So, despite some of our best recommendations and the amount of prescriptions we threw our patients’ way, smoking was so pervasive and culturally engrained that we were having little to no impact. We ended up treating symptoms not diseases. And truth be told, this story is not so different from back here in the United States where we are battling obesity, diabetes and heart disease epidemics that only seem to be growing. From the perspective of a future physician who wanted to cure diseases and improve community, national, and global health, this undertaking seemed daunting and, to be frank(furter), a little bit pointless. I left Berlin with wonderful experiences, knowledge, and memories, but even less direction and understanding of the physician I wanted to be.

I returned back to the states and mulled over my Berlin experience throughout the next semester. With graduation looming, and now uncertain of what I wanted to do with my life or how I was going to do it, I started attending job, medical school, and graduate program fairs. I found that in this search, “public health” kept coming up. Until that point, I had never even heard of public health, let alone knowing what it meant. So I started exploring and the more I learned about public health, the more it excited me. I wouldn’t have to give up my dream of being a physician. In fact, getting my Master’s in Public Health would actually make me a better physician. Instead of throwing medications at a problem or making health behavior recommendations without knowing my patients’ life situation, I would be able to look at the current state of healthcare in America, understand the root causes of disease and the social determinants of health, and use my skills as a future physician to impact global communities. This was it. This filled that gap: instead of just knowing how health is positively or negatively impacted, I could also know why.

The rest is kind of history. I looked into grad schools, I discovered WashU, I fell in love, and I’m currently living happily ever after. “Happily ever after” still means a lot of work because I’m still prepping for medical school, but this has been the best decision I could have made for my future career. So, needless to say, I recommend it to all who are or were on the pre-med track! And even if you are on the fence about whether public health is the field for you because you feel like you don’t have a “public healthy” background, that’s okay! Explore it, learn more about it, talk about it. The Brown School and public health need people like you. There is a reason you’re here reading this blog and exploring your options. There might not be a single experience that has brought you here, but the sum of those experiences are valuable and important to advancing the science of health. If a German and Pre-Med major can find his way here, so can you.