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  • Writer's pictureShelby L. Graves, MPH, CHES

Foundational Skills in Public Health Practice

Public health is a diverse field in terms of the professional backgrounds, academic tracks, and areas of concentration of those practicing. It can be challenging to describe the “ideal” public health professional. However, there are specific skills that are essential to the success of the vast majority of the public health workforce.

Read ahead to learn more about the foundational skills required of dynamic public health professionals.

© Image by: WinWin artlab

Cultural Humility

I begin with cultural humility because I believe social justice to be the core of public health practice. We cannot achieve social justice without embracing cultural humility.

Cultural humility has been described by the National Institute of Health as “a lifelong process of self-reflection and self-critique whereby the individual not only learns about another’s culture, but one starts with an examination of her/his own beliefs and cultural identities.” Public health practitioners, clinicians, and researchers must have a firm grasp on cultural humility if they are to address disparities of health. The ability to meet target populations or clients where they are is essential to advancing the health and well being of the world’s most marginalized and disenfranchised communities.

Many organizations continue to utilize the term “cultural competency.” Unfortunately, the concept of cultural competency has been shown to reinforce whiteness as the norm, positioning all other races and ethnicities as an “other” to be understood. This does not create adequate opportunity to examine and address systemic racism or barriers to care. Though aiming for cultural competency is well intended, it does not bridge the divide between the privileged and the oppressed in the same way that cultural humility can.

For more information about cultural humility, see the video below:


Leadership & Systems Thinking

My undergraduate Community & Public Health program required the course “Leadership and Ethics in Public Health” prior to graduation. As a full-time student working two jobs and completing an unpaid internship, I entered the course dreading the time I assumed would be “wasted” sitting in class. Fortunately, I took away a few leadership techniques that would benefit me throughout my career in public health.

The terms “leadership” and “systems thinking” may sound more applicable to a business management degree, but each skill is critical to running public health programs and organizations. The ability to direct and organize staff, mobilize resources, and engage in long-term planning enables public health professionals to build sustainable programs. These skills aid in succession planning, restructuring programs and leadership, continuous quality improvement, and workforce development. Do not mistake leadership and systems thinking as skills specifically reserved for senior level professionals.


Collaboration & Partnership

Every minister is a health minister and every sector is a health sector. If we put fairness at the heart of all policies, health would improve.” – Michael Marmot

I’ve always said that if it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a village to heal a child. We cannot survive and we cannot serve in public health without partnership and collaboration. Public health professionals must be able to build strong partnerships with community stakeholders to advance health priorities within their communities. They must also have the capacity to share the work with partners, knowing when to step back and step forward, as needed. It is not enough to simply forge the partnerships, but they must also engage in collaborative efforts to effectively plan, implement, and evaluate health initiatives if they wish to enact change.


Assessment & Data Management

I know quite a few public health professionals who would say they aren’t “data people.” Regardless of how we feel about numbers and data, it’s imperative we build a foundation in data and assessment if we hope to move forward in public health.

Public health professionals need strong analytical skills to conduct community health needs assessments, engage in research, identify and implement evidence-based practices, and make data-driven decisions. Not every role in public health requires high-level data analysis and management skills, but it is still important to have a foundation in data and assessment. Most masters-level programs prepare students for utilizing data and engaging in assessment in public health practice. Those who feel they did not receive adequate training in data and assessment can enroll in free or low-cost online courses to build on their existing skill set.



Public health professionals utilize strong written and oral communication skills to represent themselves during presentations, meetings, networking opportunities, and written correspondence. Reporting on public health topics via briefs, social media, white papers, and various forms of health communication requires strong written communication skills. Building health literacy skills within client and target populations is an important component of public health communication skills.

The Region V Public Health Training Center offers a free training in Cooperative Communication for public health professionals.


Policy & Program Development

Public health professionals must be able to plan, implement, and evaluate health programs and health policy. The ability to effectively promote and advocate for new programs and policies is key to advancing health initiatives and improving health outcomes for all populations. There are countless methods of planning, implementing, and evaluating health programs and policies, therefore it is important for public health professionals to have a solid foundation in policy and program development.


Financial Management

Public health professionals must be able to advocate for funding, engage in long-term financial planning, and conduct cost-benefit analyses for both small-scale and large-scale programs. Public health is traditionally underfunded, making it critical for public health professionals to maximize limited resources within their organizations. The ability to write, manage, and review budgets is vital to ensuring a program’s financial sustainability.

The Region V Public Health Training Center offers a free training in Financial Management for public health professionals.


This list does not encompass all that is required of dedicated public health professionals, but it serves as an introduction to core public health skills. See the list below for more information regarding public health core competencies, responsibilities, and essential services.

Core competencies in public health:

For more posts, resources, and general public health inspiration, follow me on Instagram @seriously.shelbs. Learning from my free content? You can can support new content by buying me an iced coffee on Ko-fi. Thanks for reading!

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