Some, like me, who have dedicated their lives to the maintenance and improvement of physical and mental health, may not consider themselves traditional, clinical “healthcare workers.” We may feel as if we work on the fringe, on the outside. We are not nurses or physicians. We work in public health, wellness, nutrition, occupational safety, health economics, fitness, risk management, pharmacy, laboratory, research, insurance and other similar non-traditional clinical professions. We may feel we make a lesser impact on patient care and overall community wellness and vitality. Given historical reference, however, this is absolutely untrue.
The term “healthcare” (whether one word or two) has not been used at all in books, papers, references or published text over hundreds of years, until the mid-1980s. But since the late 1700s, those of us “living on the fringes” have been healthcare workers in the true sense of the practice.
We may not provide bedside patient care in a healthcare or hospital setting, but we do:
- Prevent infectious disease by promoting the use of vaccines;
- Protect the public from pathogenic organisms through water and food sanitation;
- Prevent addiction and antibiotic resistance through pharmaceutical stewardship;
- Manage repercussions from post-traumatic stress with mental health interventions;
- Research global disease trends to stop them in their tracks;
- Manage risk by improving safety, security and improving quality;
- Decrease work-related injury and illness by creating safe workplaces, and
- Prevent heart disease and weight-related cancers by promoting regular exercise.
Those efforts ensure that a population’s health (both physical and mental) does not suffer, that it is either maintained or, better yet, improved. We are the “Un-Healthcare Workers.”
It is especially important that traditional healthcare organizations and healthcare workers know this now. As healthcare systems around the world are caring for patients with emerging infectious diseases like Ebola and re-emerging vaccine-preventable diseases like measles, they need to consider that we un-healthcare workers have responsibility for protecting our communities. If we can prevent diseases from becoming epidemic in our communities, healthcare providers working in healthcare settings like hospitals can focus more on providing needed care to those with emergent injuries and chronic disease.
The American Public Health Association (APHA), which has represented people protecting the public since 1872, announced a policy in November on preventing Ebola and “globally emerging infectious disease threats” that marked a significant change in the recognition of the “un-healthcare worker.” The APHA identified the need to focus efforts on preventing infectious disease in the community and workplaces as a means to protect healthcare systems from exposure to diseases that may change the overall landscape of inpatient care. In the process, the APHA advocates for the role that we “un-healthcare workers” have in maintaining and improving the physical and mental health of our population so that healthcare workers can focus on medical interventions for those who really need it.
Sound, science-based public policy and fiscally grounded public health funding can do what it did for the hundreds of years prior to the mid-1980s; it can protect our communities from disease, so that we can protect the vitality of our healthcare systems.