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HealthMarch 01, 2021

Why public health leaders should run for office

By: Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN
If there’s one thing the Covid-19 pandemic has proven, it’s that politics and public health are closely intertwined.

The current United States public health response to the virus has been guided by elected officials, even though some suggest that the nation’s healthcare system isn’t properly set up to succeed in managing a public health threat of this magnitude.1

There’s no arguing that politics doesn’t play some role in public health—but many public health practitioners view politicians with a mixture of frustration and, in some cases, contempt.

An editorial in the Journal of Public Health Management & Practice argues that more public health leaders should pursue elected office.2 According to the commentary, only 21 out of 7,383 state legislators actually possess a degree or certificate in public health or another public health-related discipline. Encouraging more public health leaders to run for office will help to create and drive policy decisions that truly have the entire nation’s wellbeing in mind.

Attributes of public health leaders

The skills possessed by many public health leaders would easily translate into politics. Public health leaders already understand the impact of broad societal issues impacting the health of the nation. These leaders could use their collected expertise to guide policy decisions by developing structural solutions for specific health problems.

Additionally, the ability to find and interpret evidence is a central part of public health education programs—as such, elected officials with public health backgrounds would be empowered to challenge information presented by lobbyists or other special interest groups that don’t have national interests in mind. Through their understanding of outcomes and types of measurements that are actually meaningful, public health leaders could help shape evidence-backed policies.

But there are certainly reasons why public health leaders wouldn’t want to run for office. The commentary authors speculate that the decision not to run for any elected position likely comes down to one of two reasons:

  1. Structural issues prevent public health leaders from running. The authors’ research shows that only 10 states pay enough so that legislators can make their political careers a full-time job. In other states, legislators must be independently wealthy, retired, or working elsewhere to provide other sources of income.
  2. The culture of politics may be undesirable for some. Politicians are under near-constant scrutiny, and many aspects of their personal lives are put on public display. Running for office requires a great deal of self-promotion. And political candidates may have to speak to audiences unfamiliar with public health, making it necessary to simplify some of the nuances of specific research. This, in turn, may make public health leaders uncomfortable.

Driving leaders toward politics

Encouraging more public health leaders into political office should begin in schools and other public health programs. Jones, et al. agree that students must view elected office as an attainable goal and a valuable contribution to public health in general. Public health courses could facilitate meetings between students and legislators, including inviting legislators as guest speakers during lectures or organizing class assignments around consulting projects for legislators. These types of experiences also benefit public health professors, who become more aware of pressing issues in public health policy.

Politics is the so-called “third rail” of public health—many stay away for fear of getting burned, but it’s actually the main power source for lasting change.3 If more public health leaders become involved in politics, new policies can be created based on their knowledge and expertise.

Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN
Freelance Health and Medical Content Writer, Wolters Kluwer Health
Sarah has over nine years’ experience in various clinical areas, including surgery, endocrinology, family practice, and pharmaceuticals. She began writing professionally in 2016 as a way to use her medical knowledge beyond the bedside to help educate and inform healthcare consumers and providers.
  1. Bias, Travis. “Public Health Is Always Political: Think Global Health.” ThinkGlobalHealth, 5 May 2020, thinkglobalhealth.org/article/public-health-always-political.
  2. Jones, David K. PhD, et al. “More Public Health Leaders Should Run for Office.” NursingCenter, 2021, nursingcenter.com/journalarticle?Article_ID=5712976&Journal_ID=420959&Issue_ID=5712975.
  3. Hunter, Edward L. “Politics and Public Health-Engaging the Third Rail.” Journal of Public Health Management and Practice: JPHMP, Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc., 2016, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4974059.
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