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What Public Health Workers Have to Say About The State of Public Health In Georgia

Public health is the science of protecting and improving Georgians’ health and the health of our communities where we live, work, and play. Public health workers, agencies, and laws make it possible to track disease outbreaks, safely drink water from our faucets and eat at restaurants, and help community residents learn healthy behaviors and understand why some of us are more likely to experience poor health than others. 

Last year, GHF launched a project to study the state and local public health systems that serve Georgians. Our goal is to better understand the strengths, challenges, opportunities, and needs of Georgia’s public health systems. GHF and our partners plan to use these results in two ways: 

  1. Advocating to our state leaders for the funding, workforce, and other supports that public health agencies need to be successful in building healthy Georgia communities; and
  2. Educating Georgians about what public health workers and organizations do and why they matter for our individual and community health.      

Talking to public health workers

In June 2023, GHF conducted focus groups with public health workers in Metro Atlanta, Southern Georgia, Central Savannah River Area, and River Valley areas. The public health workers worked in rural public health departments, urban and suburban agencies, and at the Georgia Department of Public Health. 

Through these focus groups GHF learned about how public health workers view their own work, the variety and quality of services their agencies provide, barriers to access that community members may experience, and challenges with staffing, funding, and sustaining good public health services across the state. 

Summary of Results

Rural public health workers said they wanted to see more resources available to their communities and for those resources to provide accurate information to help people make informed decisions about their health. Non-rural public health workers want to keep pilot programs in place, as cutting them would erase the progress made through these programs.

Both groups agreed that there’s a lack of awareness about what public health does and who it serves. Many workers felt that public health services and resources aren’t well-publicized. For example, many people are familiar with Medicaid and WIC, but not other services offered by public health departments.

“When you work in public health, I’ve seen […] people who come in who didn’t have any knowledge of […] what public health has to offer because […] it was not something they were familiar with. Sometimes […] they look down on public health because it feels like it’s a hand-out […] They’re ashamed [and they feel like they] don’t know why [they’re] here.” – Public health worker in non-rural area

Rural public health workers mentioned that providing services in their communities is unique because even when services are available, transportation can be a barrier to access for the community. State public health workers pointed out that while much of public health focuses on mothers and children, other groups, like senior citizens, are often left out.

“There’s a lot of information for everyone concerning chronic health diseases like diabetes and hypertension […] but it’s almost like the people have the information, but it doesn’t really sink into their being in a lot of instances. […] People know that hypertension is bad and they should stay away from salty foods […] but habits […] haven’t changed very much.” – Public health worker at the Georgia Dept. of Public Health

Rural, non-rural, and state public health workers all believe that lawmakers don’t understand the challenges faced by the people they serve. The lawmakers haven’t observed the struggles firsthand and haven’t seen public health workers in action. State public health workers believe that there’s a lot of federal money available to boost their work and that the state could better partner with local communities to raise awareness and help make public health function better in the communities they serve.

“Public health is under-resourced as a whole and you don’t have enough workers […] so that to me ties into […] the state policymakers and how they value [public health]. So it is undervalued because if it were, would we not have adequate resources, adequate funding, as well as adequate staffing?” – Public health worker at the Georgia Dept. of Public Health

Public health workers described some of the ways that they help fill the gaps left by inadequate funding, staffing, or other resources. 

“As us being workers in public health and just understanding the community and needs of the community, the strength right now is just the employees themselves sticking together to go out of their way to find resources or referrals [to get out] to our [clients] […]. If it was not for the employees sticking it out, I don’t know where our communities would be.” – Public health worker in non-rural area

What’s next? 

GHF is using the information provided by these hardworking, committed public health workers to encourage state leaders to adequately fund and support public health in Georgia. We will only be successful if leaders know that Georgians care about this issue. Show your support for public health workers, programs, and agencies here in Georgia by signing our  Say “Yes” for Public Health petition. Share the petition with others in your community too!

You may also be interested in this fact sheet about Georgia’s history as an early public health champion and steps needed to restore our public health systems and workforce so they meet the needs of our state residents.

Stay tuned for more information about and opportunities to strengthen public health in Georgia.


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