Interview with Robert Otok, Director of ASPHER

We have been reading ASPHER’s strategic Objectives 2016-2020. We are right now just in the middle of this period of time. Could you tell us some of the achievements ASPHER (Association of Schools of Public Health in the European Region) has accomplished so far regarding those strategic goals?

ASPHER 2020, which was inaugurated during the 50th anniversary year of the Association, presents a comprehensive and balanced agenda guiding the strategic development of ASPHER during an important period, critical in many ways for the future of Public Health in Europe and globally.

As we reach the midterm mark of this time period, several key achievements have been reached by ASPHER. These include the continued development of ASPHER’s core competences programme with the publication of the 5th edition of competences list. The list remains a core reference for the development of public health education in Europe, while also supporting public health careers and systems development.

A central project underway is the collaborative development of a series of tools for public health workforce development and professionalization in Europe. This is being undertaken as part of a groundbreaking agenda set by the WHO Regional Office for Europe within a framework of the European Action Plan (EAP) for Public Health Capacities and Services Strengthening. The tools will be presented at the European Public Health Conference in Ljubljana this November and will be made available for use by countries and other relevant stakeholders soon thereafter.

ASPHER has also made strides to bolster collaboration between keystone public health organizations. Cooperation across organizations that pool ideas, resources, and capacity can only strengthen Public Health today and brighten the outlook for the field in the future. ASPHER is maintaining historically close ties with the European Public Health Association (EUPHA), and forging new key partnerships – including those with the International Association of National Public Health Institutes (IANPHI) and the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH), which is ASPHER’s counterpart organization across the Atlantic.

There are other exciting developments still to come under the ASPHER 2020 agenda. These include the launch of the Public Health Training Academy, which is meant to constitute a training platform for individuals seeking continuing professional development opportunities in public health. ASPHER is also improving the formula for its annual Deans’ and Directors’ Retreats – a major membership event of the Association.

We know one of the foremost pillars of ASPHER working is on Professionalization of the Public Health Workforce. Could you explain the ASPHER’s work in this area?

This project is primarily realized through ASPHER’s active engagement in WHO Europe’s Coalition of Partners (CoP) work on implementation of the EAP for Public Health Capacities and Services Strengthening. The relevant CoP projects include:

  1. Development of the Road Map towards professionalization of the public health workforce in the European Region. This is a tool meant to support countries in developing policies related to public health workforce professionalization. The Road Map recognizes the diversity of public health systems in place across Europe and should act as a guide to countries to choose the path that suits their culture and needs to strengthen and professionalize their workforce. The Road Map seeks to reinforce the professional identity of the current public health workforce and help to align public health services and operations with the public health workforce development.
  2. Development of a Handbook for managing public health professional credentialing and accreditation systems in the European Region to serve as a reference tool for the national education and health systems to ensure the competencies both required and presently possessed by the public health workforce.
  3. Development of a core competencies Framework for the public health workforce in the European Region. This should be of use for human resources practices to enable an ongoing standardized and consistent assessment and development of public health knowledge and skills at individual, service, organizational, and country levels, thus, supporting public health professionalization and credentialing.

Does ASPHER have any plan to facilitate the application of its proposals about professionalisation to medical residency programmes in Europe? What EuroNet and public health residents in general can do to support and participate in ASPHER?

The EuroNet Medical Residents in Public Health (MRPH) plays an important role in the development and the implementation of the public health professionalization agenda. The Network already actively contributes to the work of the CoP providing a specialist workforce and fresh perspectives from a younger generation. Input from EuroNet and its individual members is critical for the success of this effort.

The specialist training EuroNet MRPH members obtain makes them also particularly relevant to ASPHER. It is no surprise then that both associations actively collaborate, share mutual understanding and friendship. Italy is an interesting example of a country where all schools providing residency and specialist training in public health became ASPHER members – such a membership context provides powerful potential for working closely together.

To learn from your experience, which are the aspects of ASPHER that led you to get involved with the association? How did you benefit from being involved in ASPHER?

ASPHER is a family, with all the baggage that it brings – both pluses and minuses. Still, what I think keeps me (and I believe not only me) with ASPHER is its unique atmosphere and the people who are part of the organization.

Over the past years, I have sought to secure its professional shape and high performance standards. Being the Association of Schools of Public Health, (i.e. concrete institutions, with staff, students and graduates), extends the impact of ASPHER through the schools’ infrastructure, the services they provide in training, research and societal contributions. It is an extremely powerful organisation – essential for the growth of the Public Health in Europe and globally. Working at ASPHER is therefore an extraordinary journey, an eye-opening experience, reflecting the complexity of the truly unique field the Public Health is.

Which do you think are the future challenges for the future public health workforce and how young public health professionals could prepare to face those challenges?

My personal take is that we are currently challenged to identify clear career options/paths and to make quality training available to enable smooth navigation through the complexity of the public health field and the choices it offers. ASPHER makes continuous efforts to address this. Young public health professionals should remain courageous and pertinacious. I would recommend that they find someone they can trust to lead them in facing their career challenges and in their turn, mentor newcomers as they move forward and gain experience.