What if public health were a mandatory class in high school?

An important class for life and potential track to a job.

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The best way to promote public health is to educate and martial the community who has the most to win; our youth.  In high school my Dad espoused some tenets for life “wear your seatbelt, play a sport, go to college and don’t smoke”. In high school, an elective in public health might have back up his advice as I later learned that wearing a seatbelt cuts my risk for fatal injury in half.   

Public health’s share of total healthcare expenditures hovers around a paltry ~3%. And today the most important problems being debated on the national stage – the economy, social justice and navigating a pandemic- all have roots and solutions in public health.  In fact, the only path to a sustained economic recovering is through a strong public health system. 

These challenges and pending policy solutions pose a question: should public health be covered as a mandatory class in high school? The opinion and buy-in of policies within this group are likely to drive success for future generations. We don’t have to look far, as this week college towns are having outbreaks two times the rate of non-college towns. We shouldn’t be too surprised that students are grappling with public health tactics while hungry for the necessary socialization to thrive in life.  Instead of shaming, an early education around community spread might embolden these students to protect their communities and grandparents including skipping coming home for Thanksgiving this year. 

And more pressing,  young adults over index on major public health problems including obesity (20.6%), illegal drug use (16.7%), vaping (20%) and sexually transmitted diseases (50%) to name a few. And more than 60% of injury related deaths  are due to vehicle crashes, firearms, and suicide all of which require critical prevention strategies (Cunningham, 2018). And alcohol is almost always a factor in the three leading causes of death among youth 15-24 years old: accidents, homicides, and suicides. 

Nearly all US states require students to complete a certain number of units per course to earn a standard high school diploma including english, mathematics, social studies, science, art, foreign languages and electives. Unfortunately, most high schools only require a half unit (.5) of health which often falls under physical education. 

 And while many have some college education, the vast majority 66% of the population over age 21 do not have a four-year college degree. Early exposure to public health could be analogous to trade and vocational classes where many students graduate into technical schools. Students learning public health may ignite their technical path into nursing, medicine, pharmacy, respiratory therapy, medical coding which are often two year degree programs at a lower tuition burden. And at a minimum, they will be better equipped as a consumer of healthcare.  

And these healthcare trade degrees pay well, often come with good health insurance and can serve as a launch pad for higher education at the graduate level. Armed with a nursing degree, I went on to attain a few masters and a doctorate of public health. 

Public health protects and promotes the health of people and their communities focusing on where they live, learn, and work. It’s never too early to give science based solutions to problems. 

There is no higher return on investment than arming our next generation with the power of public health science helping them prevent disease and promote life enhancing behaviors throughout their lifecycle. 

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