Public Health

Amy Vangsgard

If you associate public health with those clipboard-toting health inspectors in white coats poking around restaurant kitchens, you probably don’t know about its countless career opportunities. With the goal of ensuring a healthy and safe environment, a public-health professional can instruct Angelenos on how to earthquake-proof their homes before "the big one" as a disaster-preparedness trainer, lobby a television producer to add health messages to an ER episode as a Hollywood lobbyist, or fight for an immigrant child’s right to quality medical care as a child-health advocate. For those who get squeamish at the sight of blood but still want to help people stay healthy, take note of the following public-health careers that are particularly promising in L.A.

Selling Good Behavior

Although "prevention" is the buzzword on the lips of most health professionals, admonitions to avoid smoking (linked to everything from bad breath to lung cancer) have fallen on deaf ears. Even in health-fanatical La-La Land, about one in five adults smokes. According to Dr. Scott Ratzan, editor in chief of the Journal of Health Communication, "Health data do not speak for themselves. People still engage in lifestyle activities knowing they are wrong." For public-health professionals, being armed with statistics is not enough. As Fred Kroger, communications specialist at the Centers for Disease Control, told American Demographics, "We in public health have often been like preachers. We pass out the truth and expect everyone to recognize it." This lack of response points to a need for health communicators able to translate research findings into terms that the guy on the street can understand and apply to his life.

One strategy increasingly used by public-health professionals is social marketing, which employs the same tactics that sell a can of Mountain Dew to "sell" ideas, attitudes or behavior. McGruff the Crime Dog, who asked Americans to "take a bite out of crime," and Smokey Bear, imploring viewers to prevent forest fires, are two resonant social-marketing campaigns. Although these memorable "spokesmen" were created by advertising companies working pro bono, firms like Porter Novelli have decades of experience in helping nonprofit organizations craft communication strategies to reach their intended audiences. Launched in 1972 by two former ad execs fresh from the Peace Corps, Porter Novelli "has deep roots in social marketing," says Betsy O’Brien, vice president of its health-care division.

Using moneys generated from Proposition 10’s 50-cent cigarette-tax hike, the California Department of Health Services hired Asher and Partners, and other agencies targeting minorities, to design the state’s multimillion-dollar Marlboro-spoofing antismoking ads. According to Nedra Kline Weinreich, president of a Bay Area social-marketing firm, "These opportunities will grow as more organizations become aware of social marketing’s effectiveness in getting across messages that can change health behaviors." Mary Beth Bowen, managing editor of Social Marketing Quarterly, says, "Social marketing is not a typical field [in which] people can get a [specific] degree. Most come into the field from the commercial side or the public-health side." Prospective candidates should have a background in marketing or communications and an interest in social issues. Those interested in using marketing skills "for good" and not for gain can find a satisfying career.

In a city where celebrities carry more weight than political bigwigs, L.A.-based social marketers can carve a special niche. Media advocacy, a.k.a. "Hollywood lobbying," influences viewers via prime-time TV. With the help of the UCLA Department of Film and Television, Deborah Glik and colleagues at the UCLA School of Public Health pitched stories stressing the importance of immunization (getting shots to prevent disease) to producers, directors and writers. The result? Since 1996, 13 shows have aired with segments about immunization. Remember the episode of Frasier when the needle-fearing radio shrink gets a flu shot? This success led to the establishment of UCLA’s Health and Media Research Center, which "takes a comprehensive approach," says Glik, "and look[s] at an array of health and environmental issues, helping supply writers with accurate portrayals."

According to Glik, who teaches a grad course on media development in health promotion, there are more than 200 groups in L.A. that lobby the entertainment media to be more socially conscious. Although a degree in public health is not required, experience in health communication or marketing is a must. Studio City–based Mediascope, which focuses on drinking and teenage pregnancy, looks for individuals with experience in entertainment, public health or public policy. Considering television’s reach and influence in today’s media-saturated society, "entertainment education" is a powerful way to endorse healthy behavior.

For a crash course in social marketing, useful links and job boards, visit Weinreich Communications’ Web site:

For information about Hollywood lobbying, call the UCLA Health and Media Research Center at (310) 794-2886.

Adding Life to Years

With a record number of persons turning 65 and an overall rise in longevity, the nation is expected to experience a geriatric explosion. Today, the 65-and-older set is made up of some 34.3 million, according to the U.S. â Census Bureau. In a dozen years, this population is expected to increase by 15 percent, and in 32 years the number will double. Moreover, the number of people age 85 and over is expected to triple in the next 30 years. The number of centenarians (people over a century old!) is predicted to double each decade. Accordingly, the demand for specialists in gerontology (the study of aging) is booming. And with 10 percent of the nation’s centenarians living in California, the need for gerontologists in the City of Angels is high. To help train them, there are more than 700 degree-granting programs across the nation for all educational levels. Cal State Long Beach offers a master of science in gerontology, and L.A. Mission College offers certificates and associate degrees. For the ambitious, Hebrew Union College offers a double master’s in Jewish communal services and gerontology. In addition to the traditional degrees, USC’s Leonard Davis School, the nation’s first professional gerontology school, lets busy professionals earn an online graduate certificate by "attending" AgeWorks classes in cyberspace.

Before graduating from the Davis School (its namesake co-founded the American Association of Retired Persons), Jeannette Hilgert taught seniors in a Redondo Beach retirement community how to navigate the Web as part of a USC research project. These highly functioning seniors quickly took to surfing the Internet as a way to connect with others on topics from gambling to the arts. One 90-year-old called "Cyber Gram" still e-mails Hilgert, even after the end of the four-month program. Hilgert, herself Peruvian, reaches out to the underserved Latino population and their caregivers. Hilgert says this is a much-needed service in L.A. County, home to the largest number of Latino seniors in the mainland U.S. and where roughly 40 percent of the over-60 crowd is Latino. When asked why she chose a gerontology career, Hilgert said, "I’ve always had a deep affinity for my grandparents; they were pivotal people in my life."

Attracted by the wealth of experience and knowledge possessed by seniors, more and more people are entering the field, whose goal, according to Davis School of Gerontology dean Dr. Edward Schneider, "should not be to add years to life but life to years." And because aging cuts across many fields, various professions contribute ways to meet older people’s needs. Gerontologists can work directly with seniors in rehabilitation centers or adult education, or on seniors’ behalf in research, academics and advocacy. Owing to this diversity, it is difficult to gauge the total availability of jobs in the industry, say gerontology officials. However, for specific fields, data are available. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, home health aid (caring for homebound elderly) is among the nation’s Top 10 fastest-growing occupations, with the number of jobs predicted to jump 76 percent from 1996 to 2006. According to Jeff Hyde, internship director at the Davis School, considering the relative newness of the industry and the rapid graying of the population, "There are jobs in aging that we haven’t even thought of yet." A far cry from quarantines and food inspection, don’t ya think?

To find out if gerontology is for you, visit the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education Web site:

For information about older Americans, call the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) at (800) 424-3410.

For information about specific programs, call:

Cal State Long Beach: (562) 985-4056.

Los Angeles Mission College: (818) 364-7696.

USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology: (213) 740-5156.

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