Uncommon Rewards

Uncommon Rewards

“Global health? You must find your work so rewarding!” said a flight attendant who chatted me up on my recent trip from Seattle to Washington.

“Indeed I do,” I replied, and especially right now.

The truth is, the rewards of a career in public health are infrequent and often hard to see. In clinical medicine, doctors and nurses have the benefit of experiencing the impact they have on people’s lives on a daily basis. For them, delivering babies, bringing relief to sick patients and fixing boo-boos are all part of a day’s work. In public health, on the other hand, victories sometimes take decades — rather than minutes — to reveal themselves.

For starters, in public health, we’re focused on large-scale disease prevention. So it’s actually the absence of disease — that is, not encountering patients in the world’s emergency rooms — that we aim to achieve. Second, it can take years of effort to get prevention programs in place, and years more for them to take effect. This is particularly true in developing countries, where lack of infrastructure can dramatically impede progress. Finally, we have to be satisfied with progress shown in spreadsheets, graphs and peer-reviewed papers rather than on the faces of real people. Granted, we get pretty excited about shifts in a line graph — but somehow it’s just not the same as sending a child off with a lollipop and seeing her face light up a room.

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