Finding my calling in health behavior

Post Graduate

Think about your patients and why they may not be taking their medications. Think beyond the standard answers and ask yourself what may be contributing to their nonadherence. Do they have adequate transportation to their health care provider or pharmacy? Are they making the choice between food on the table for their family or refilling their prescriptions?

Whether you have thought of it or not, the choices you make, consciously or unconsciously, are not completely your own. As a student pharmacist, I was fascinated and troubled by this because no matter how good of a pharmacist I thought I was, there were circumstances and environmental factors beyond my control as a practitioner that influenced not only my patients’ behaviors, but my own.

I developed my understanding of the concept of choice as a first-year student pharmacist at the University of Southern California. I found that day-to-day decisions made by patients and providers could be perplexing and wanted to answer the “whys” and “hows” of these decisions. I knew my education as a pharmacist would not be enough to answer these questions and I decided that I needed to get a research degree to find solutions to the problems I felt were fundamental to making better health decisions.

Meaningful purpose

I learned how to think critically about the subject of health decision making when I enrolled at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health. I am currently in the PhD program in the Department of Health Behavior. Specifically, I work with behavioral scientists that study vaccinations in adolescent populations and attempt to identify the social and environmental determinants that influence a parent’s or adolescent’s decision to get vaccines. Although I study medical-decisions made by providers and patients, health behaviors are far more encompassing, ranging from eating and exercising habits, to sexual risk behaviors and violence prevention.

Health behavior sits at the intersection of sociology (the study of society) and psychology (the study of the mind), and how the two disciplines interact. It is a multidisciplinary field; the department consists of psychologists, economists, medical professionals, and political scientists, all studying different aspects of human behavior and society. 

I love what I do and the public health community I am a part of because I find our purpose meaningful—to provide social justice by way of improving health. I see great potential for pharmacists to be more keenly involved with public health practice and research since we provide a singular perspective on health and have ample opportunity to co-mingle with the community and society at-large. With the public health degree in hand, I hope to teach new clinicians and public health practitioners, and conduct behavioral research at an academic institution. 

Discipline hodgepodge

While I found my calling in health behavior, public health is a hodgepodge of disciplines all aiming to positively impact society’s health. Public health includes epidemiology, biostatistics, health policy, and environmental health. I take this opportunity to give you a brief overview.

There are generally two tracks: those who get a Masters of Public Health (MPH) and go into practice, and those who get a research degree (PhD) and go into research and teaching. Most programs require applicants to complete the GRE exam and graduate application. While program lengths and requirements can vary from school to school, coursework, experiential components, and conducting novel research are usually involved in both programs. Masters programs tend to focus more on application and practice, and learning objectives tend to focus on implementing and managing public health programs. PhD programs train students to be future researchers, so the majority of courses are spent learning theories, research methods and designs, statistics, and conducting research for a dissertation. 

What program fits your interest will largely depend on how you want to use your public health degree. Do you want to implement the information in your clinical practice or conduct new research? What kind of skills do you want to learn? Do you want to learn more about health policy and management, or do you find working with epidemiologic data and surveillance more interesting?

Public health can be an incredibly rewarding career, especially when integrated in pharmacy practice. Pharmacy’s role in public health is ever-growing and provides a great niche for those who are looking to specialize in a field that has a lot of growth potential.