New Survey Reveals That the Public Misjudges Greatest Threat to the Nation's Health


NEW YORK -- Despite recent intense media coverage of public health issues ranging from bioterrorism to SARS to obesity, most Americans still do not recognize the greatest public health threat to the nation, finds new research from RoperASW commissioned by Pfizer Inc's Public Health Group. The study reveals a wide gap between what the general public and public health community view as the major health threat to the U.S.

More than two-thirds of the 1,012 adult Americans surveyed listed AIDS, HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) as the major public health threat facing the nation. In contrast, 81 percent of public health professionals surveyed ranked obesity as the major threat.

Public health issues have been in the news like never before, with crises such as bioterrorism, SARS, West Nile Virus, and mercury levels in fish commanding front-page attention. Despite the scary headlines, the nation's public health experts point to obesity as the biggest threat to the nation's health. Fifty-one percent of the professionals surveyed also listed unhealthy lifestyles and behaviors as a major factor contributing to the chronic diseases plaguing the U.S. For this study, the 200 public health professionals surveyed were defined as high-ranking officials in professional medicine; health administration, government health; public health academia; non-profit organizations; and healthcare corporations.

Although there was a large gap between the most critical issues identified by the public health community and the general public, there was consensus among both groups about cardiovascular disease (CVD) and diabetes. Both groups ranked CVD and diabetes as the third and fourth most critical public health issues today. However, the public still ranked obesity seventh on the critical list, missing the connection between obesity and the increased risk of these other serious conditions.

"The survey results show that the public is aware of and interested in public health issues, but they have underestimated what really constitutes the biggest threat to our health as a society," said Barbara DeBuono, MD, MPH, medical director and group leader of Pfizer Inc's Public Health Group. "The research shows that messages about the link between obesity with other diseases, such as CVD, diabetes and even cancer, must be repeated again and again before the public will make this connection and we begin to see behavior change."

The research also reveals that experts fear a shortage of qualified public health workers in the future, and need to encourage more people to enter the dynamic field. Amazingly, there are 2,025,000 counter attendants and fast food workers in the U.S., compared with 448,254 workers in the public health field, a greater than 4:1 ratio.

To raise awareness among students and the general public about public health careers, Pfizer's Public Health Group has recently published "Advancing Healthy Populations: the Pfizer Guide to Careers in Public Health." The fourth in a series of career guides produced by Pfizer, the book is available free of charge (1) by visiting and clicking on the book icon. The series also includes books on careers in nursing, pharmacy and medicine.

"The public health community needs to take steps to encourage more people to enter our field to confront these critical issues," explained William Roper, MD, MPH, (no relation to RoperASW), dean of the School of Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "We can do that by letting the public know what public health means, and highlighting the role of the public health professional in their daily lives." Roper is one of 33 public health experts profiled in advancing health populations and also oversees the National Public Health Leadership Institute at UNC.

The new guide explores the wide variety of career opportunities that exist under the umbrella of "public health." It features a "day in the life" of diverse public health professionals, and even outlines the specific personality traits that are suited to these different disciplines. The guide is appropriate for students considering public health studies; professionals considering a career change; and the general public interested in learning more about the individuals who safeguard the nation's health and safety.

This study was conducted by RoperASW via telephone from July 17 through August 4, 2003, among 200 public health professionals. In addition, a representative sample of 1,012 Americans age 18+ was surveyed for comparison on the key public health issues facing the nation.

(1) Up to 10 copies of the book are available free of charge; bulk orders can be arranged through Pfizer upon request.

Source: Pfizer Inc

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