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Do the Right Thing: Prioritize Public Education and Health

As a reader of this wellness blog, you probably agree that education and health are foundational to a high-performing society. You probably understand that education and health are economic imperatives that enable increased individual performance and contributions to society as a whole. You likely also believe that public access to education and health is a critical ingredient in our society’s status and in our performance in and contribution to the broader marketplace.

All of these things are true. Studies have shown that investments in education and health can have far-ranging returns for society as a whole.  Yet we, as a country, have given mostly lip service to the importance of both despite the critical benefits they can provide. In education and health, we risk our society’s global standing unless we challenge the models for education and health under which we operate and finally put our money where our mouth says it is.

As a capitalistic society, our existing models for education and health have developed largely based on maximizing revenue potential. These models demand the best experienced professionals with advanced degrees to enable the institutions to command the highest premium.

While this has led to a thriving private sector for education and health, it has resulted in a growing wage gap between private and public roles in both education and health – for example, private university/hospital presidents vs. public university/hospital presidents – as well as between “administrative” and “practitioner” roles such as insurance executives versus doctors.

Based on this wage gap, today’s public colleges and universities generally struggle to compete with their private counterparts for talent. Similarly, for those in the health field, positions with big, private business are generally more lucrative than positions with public health organizations and institutions. The health system suffers from the additional challenge of an economic model based on the treatment of disease rather than the prevention of it. (When you profit more from sickness, wellness holds little incentive.) Add to that the pay inequities for women and underrepresented candidates and the playing field becomes even more uneven.

The rise in private institutions, the resulting wage gap and the challenges of a reverse incentive system for health has ultimately threatened equal access to both education and health. It has created a quality gap between public and private education and health. As this quality gap widens, the education and health of the public weakens significantly.

After all, education and health are interdependent. Studies have shown that the more educated we are, the healthier we are, and vice versa. Higher learning typically results in a higher likelihood that we are aware of and practice healthy behaviors.

At the same time, practice of healthy behaviors has always been correlated to learning advantages. Yet, the converse is also true.  The less educated we are, the less healthy we are, and vice versa.  Reducing access to public education results in poorer public health while reducing access to public health results in learning disadvantages. It is a curious quandary and a vicious cycle.

What can we do to stop it?  We first need to believe that education is a public health priority and public health is an education priority. True prioritization of public education and health is needed, and the wage gap is a great place to start. We need to strengthen rewards and compensation models, remove barriers and provide easier access for those who want to contribute to the education and health of the public.  Concerns about cost should not impact career aspirations, particularly in public education and health, just as concerns about cost should not impact individual access to public education and health services.

This is very real to me as a career-changer from private industry to public health. I walked away from a much more significant salary doing much less society-impacting work. While I am extremely excited about starting a Ph.D. program in nutrition, I also  am acutely aware that advanced degrees, particularly in education and health – and even more specifically in the public sector – are not typically rewarded commensurate with their value in society or the potential expense. I am passionate and committed to public health and effecting change in this area. Yet, passion and commitment, or at least financial freedom) are almost a requirement in the face of the high costs of education that are then compounded by potential health challenges related to performance and financial stress.

Those of us seeking to do work in public education and health often find ourselves in roles that are beneficial to those we serve, but thankless to us. Given the potential economic impact of public education and health roles as society’s “earning enablers,” we, as a country, need to make sure the potential for earning across both public and private sectors more closely matches the value of these roles to society as a whole.  We need to examine alternate compensation models that can reward occupations in public education and health based on an acknowledgement of the significant impact and contribution of these roles to society’s broader goals.

Tanya Leake is a certified health coach, group fitness and dance instructor, wellness presenter and book author based in Atlanta.


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