Increased awareness of pandemic public health work, national initiatives

SINGAPORE – If there are silver linings to the Covid-19 pandemic, greater awareness of the critical work of public health specialists in the fight against infectious diseases is surely one.

The increased profile of these researchers in recent years has helped attract the next generation of public health experts, the dean of Singapore’s only fully fledged National School of Public Health told The Straits Times here.

The pandemic and national initiatives such as the war on diabetes and measures to reduce sugar consumption have made more people realize that many of life’s problems have their roots in public health, Professor Teo said. Yik Ying, dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health. at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

On April 24, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called on the medical community here not to let the valuable lessons of the pandemic – for which Singapore paid dearly – go to waste. Among these lessons is the need to further develop the Republic’s focus on public health.

Public health refers to the study of how the health of populations can be improved and protected, while clinical medicine is about finding the best way to treat individual patients.

“In normal times, many other ‘popular’ medical specializations are more in demand,” Prime Minister Lee said. “Yet in a pandemic, as we have seen, public health expertise is absolutely crucial.”

That’s why it’s crucial to ensure there’s a steady pipeline of developing public health talent, Professor Teo said.

To give NUS students exposure to public health work and amplify their interest in learning more about the field, the school has introduced a general public health elective module, in which around 1,500 students enroll each year.

But in addition to training the next generation of public health leaders, Professor Teo said he was also keen to ensure that the school’s research translates into practical and useful information that influences the programs of the government.

One of the challenges issued by Prime Minister Lee last week was to develop local skills in assessing and forecasting disease trends and evaluating alternative public health measures, so that public health data from high quality inform policy-making.

That’s why students at the school are continually encouraged to think about how their work can be expanded and applied to real-world problems, Professor Teo said.

“You won’t be a public health expert if you just do your own research, but never ask ‘what does this mean for the real world’, or how you can successfully communicate this to the rest of the community” , he said.

Maria D. Ervin