Caught off-guard by the coronavirus pandemic, many companies found themselves in a period of great uncertainty in mid-March. Unsure of their safest options and without medical experts on staff, many companies chose to close (Aaron in Fry, 2020), leading to devastating economic impacts. How can we prevent this from happening again? The addition of a “public health officer” to an executive team can present several benefits even beyond ensuring companies face the future prepared for the unexpected.
The role of a public health officer goes beyond occupational health and safety. A recommendation for future staffing involves including a public health preparedness medical expert on staff to advise on and assess threats. These experts should sit at an executive level, to avoid falling into silos and losing their company-wide impact. Some may question the validity or need for this role given the recent vaccine developments for COVID-19, but despite the roll-out of a vaccine not all will receive one in a timely manner, if at all. COVID-19 may be here to stay, and populations will experience periodic outbreaks (Dr. David Murdock in Litke, 2020). Not only that, but COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic: there have been several close calls already where wildlife diseases have had a potential to jump to human populations (Gill, 2020).
So what will a public health officer do? Internally this person will serve a symbolic and practical role. They show the workforce that the company is willing to prioritize staff health and safety, and that they are a caring employer. This person has the ability to provide expert advice, develop vaccination plans, and identify and assess health risks in the workplace. They can answer the question “is it safe?” by examining health hazards. This function may have previously been included in an occupational health and safety role, which tends to analyze slips, trips, falls, and visible features of a workplace; generally, this position may not have as in-depth medical knowledge as an expert with a public health background. When a person with this expertise is brought on staff, confidence may be increased – many people are influenced by expert endorsements, as evidenced in a consumer study by Nielsen (Henshaw, 2019).
This staff member will also play a role publicly. They will improve a company’s reputation through the aforementioned prioritization of staff health. This person can ensure public health remains a topic of discussion within the company, thus improving the company’s overall contribution to public health. If adopting a public health officer becomes a common practice, it is likely that public health can be improved nationwide.
It can be argued that many businesses are struggling already without the added burden of finding resources to hire new staff. In these instances, it is still recommended that organizations seek public health guidance that can be tailored to the individual company. Regardless of the method of integration, public health expertise must be included in all future business planning, instilling a preparedness mindset for any future crises.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced everyone to learn many tough lessons about resiliency, adaptability and how we can improve moving forward. Key among these lessons is the essential nature of healthcare providers and experts. These individuals can be assets in not only the healthcare setting, but also in any public or corporate enterprise.