Tribal Public Health Systems Need “Dream Teams” with Specialized Skills
Karrie Joseph
September 13, 2023

Reading Time: 2 minutes

The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the need for a coordinated and nimble public health system; one that is adequately staffed and able to collect, interpret, and act quickly and appropriately on ever-changing data and information. The pandemic challenged the Tribal public health system in both large and small communities. For many, it was all hands-on deck, mobilizing any and all available staff in the safest possible way. Delivery of medications and meeting the basic needs of those in isolation became workforce priorities.

One of the biggest lessons learned from COVID is that public health is not just about eye-catching infographics and well-attended health events. It’s not necessarily about having a “public health department” or someone with a public health degree (although both of those are ideal!). In the broadest sense, public health requires both specialized skills and an infrastructure that intersects with governance, sovereignty, workforce, and data capabilities.

The Skills Needed

A variety of skills are needed for a swift and adequate public health response. A triple combination of clinical, communication, and data skills are offered here:

1. Clinical Skills

Health knowledge that comes with clinical skills, such as those embodied by public health nurses, registered nurses, physicians, and other health care providers is important to understanding the health effects and treatment options of the public health threat. They are able to interpret the latest scientific trends and are often some of the most trusted people in the community.

2. Communication Skills

Equally critical are communication skills, such as those for education and outreach, as you might find in a public health educator or social worker. Information needs to be communicated in a way that is understood, reflects Tribal wisdom and culture, and resonates with the community. These positions should also understand human behavior and cultural norms which can greatly impact your prevention and outreach efforts, especially if behavior change is needed. Additionally, they are skilled planners and coordinators, able to bring people together and mobilize for action.  

3. Data Skills

Lastly, someone who can bring skills in data analysis is crucial. This could be someone who is skilled at crunching numbers and understanding and interpreting data. More important is the ability to pose precise inquiries of the data, give it context within your community and communicate to others what the data shows. Tribal Nations often rely upon the Tribal Epidemiology Centers for their technical expertise in this area but having someone “on the ground” can be invaluable, as well. 

Combining these skills makes an impactful team that can both advise leadership on effective actions and execute the job. However, what makes this combination a “dream team” is having the sufficient infrastructure needed for a robust public health response.  

Components of an Effective Public Health Infrastructure 

Sufficient public health infrastructure means an environment 

  • Where the Tribe is aware of its inherent public health authority and maximizes it through policy and partnerships; 
  • Where authorities and responsibilities for public health are comprehensive and clearly defined; 
  • Where public health skills are valued and sought after in the workforce; and 
  • Where there are adequate technological resources to support communication, public health data collection, and reporting, whether that be internal or through partnership.

While the “public health dream team” may sound aspirational, chances are your Nation already embodies many of the skills in current staff and houses the building blocks for strengthening public health infrastructure. Creating the right combination and the right environment will make your dream team a force to be reckoned with.