While a nursing or medical background is essential for some roles in global health, implementing effective health care solutions requires a wide range of technical expertise and soft skills. Strong skills in project management, communication, and data analysis are important in understanding health challenges in different contexts.
Devex spoke to two experts, working on different aspects of public health, to find out what it takes to build expertise in the sector.
Health requires a range of expertise
The challenges facing public health are broad and complex, requiring a wide range of solutions. For example, different expertise is required to improve management systems; design health promotion programs; develop epidemiology research; or improve disease control and surveillance, explained Dr. Elvira Beracochea, founder and president at Realizing Global Health.
Beracochea holds a Doctor of Medicine but after completing a master’s degree in public health, shifted her focus, and now works on designing innovative solutions to global health delivery challenges.
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Health-orientated studies — particularly a master’s in public health — can lead to a range of roles in the health sector, and set you up to develop field-specific knowledge through project experience, said Camlus Odhus, an expert on maternal, newborn, and child health, currently based in Kenya overseeing a UNICEF-funded program.
The focus, he explained, is on fostering cross-team approaches, developing data analysis skills, and equipping professionals with the ability to consider different contexts and adapt programs accordingly. This educational experience provided him with the “core competencies” to work in global health and to later develop his expertise in specific areas.
Project management skills
In addition to technical roles, Odhus has also worked in a number of health project managerial roles. In an effort to foster good practices and keep up-to-date, he completed a diploma in project management studies.
Odhus said the knowledge he acquired through this training has been extremely helpful in implementing and overseeing health projects. He recommends investing in some form of project management training to learn the theory behind different approaches and be able to demonstrate these competencies. Organizations may value specific certifications — but for working with United Nations agencies, Odhus recommends PRINCE.
Beracochea agreed that health experts “need to have the principles of management,” and are effectively problem solvers, always having to come up with solutions to specific challenges.
“You have to draw on different tools, different approaches, and involve different people,” Beracochea said.
Foster communication and collaboration
According to Odhus, the importance of soft skills — particularly those that foster collaboration — cannot be overemphasized if you want to develop expertise in health.
“The hard skills, the technical knowledge, and the experience is important,” he said, “but without these soft skills you can’t really get much accomplished.”
Odhus explained that working in health can involve collaborating with a diverse range of professionals such as doctors, public health experts, statisticians, procurement specialists, finance officers, and laboratory scientists. Therefore, “being able to harness the strengths that each of these diverse team members can bring is extremely important,” he said.
It is also critical that you are able to communicate effectively with diverse audiences, he continued. A health expert may be tasked with drafting a report for donors or delivering a presentation to politicians on a public health hazard. “Communication, therefore, might make the difference between whether a program is effective or fails,” he said.
Strong writing and public speaking skills are an important part of communication, Beracochea explained: “If you cannot stand in front of a group and communicate a single idea and support it in a way that is attractive or memorable, you are in trouble.” The same goes for a being able to produce a “two-pager” that is clearly laid out and supported by evidence. If you want to become an expert, focus on developing these skills, Beracochea said.
Learn from experience and adapt to context
Project experience can teach you lessons and help build expertise, said Odhus. A lot of his knowledge on family planning and maternal and newborn health has been developed through project experience.
This expertise was the “common thread” that allowed him to work across different areas of health, such as HIV/AIDS or malaria programs, where there was still a focus on maternal, newborn, and child health issues.
Beracochea agreed that project experience is critical in building expertise and that each job and project is an opportunity to learn something new.
“You have to go that extra mile because that’s where you really show that you can do more and you learn more,” she explained. Attitude is essential to becoming an expert in any field, she added.
Know how to handle data
Familiarity with qualitative data management software is increasingly important for health experts, Odhus said.
“It not just about the numbers, it’s also about the stories behind the numbers,” he explained. Being able to use different software to obtain feedback from communication is, therefore, a valuable skill for any health expert.
For more coverage on professional development, visit the Skills for Tomorrow site here.