Identifying Core Competencies for Public Health Epidemiologists

Article excerpt


Background: Public health authorities have prioritized the identification of competencies, yet little empirical data exist to support decisions on competency selection among particular disciplines. We sought perspectives on important competencies among epidemiologists familiar with or practicing in public health settings (local to national).

Methods: Using a sequential, qualitative-quantitative mixed method design, we conducted key informant interviews with 12 public health practitioners familiar with front-line epidemiologists' practice, followed by a web-based survey of members of a provincial association of public health epidemiologists (90 respondents of 155 eligible) and a consensus workshop. Competency statements were drawn from existing core competency lists and those identified by key informants, and ranked by extent of agreement in importance for entry-level practitioners.

Results: Competencies in quantitative methods and analysis, critical appraisal of scientific evidence and knowledge transfer of scientific data to other members of the public health team were all regarded as very important for public health epidemiologists. Epidemiologist competencies focused on the provision, interpretation and 'translation' of evidence to inform decision-making by other public health professionals. Considerable tension existed around some potential competency items, particularly in the areas of more advanced database and data-analytic skills.

Interpretation: Empirical data can inform discussions of discipline-specific competencies as one input to decisions about competencies appropriate for epidemiologists in the public health workforce.

Key words: Human resources; professional competence; epidemiology; interview; survey; Canada

In Canada, federal and provincial public health authorities have called for increased training and expansion of the public health workforce.1,2 To guide this development, a single set of core (crossdisciplinary) competencies for all public health personnel were developed, primarily through consensus processes of experts.3-7 These core competencies define the main knowledge and skills of public health workers, and form the building blocks for discipline-specific ones, e.g., of public health nurses8 and nutritionists.9 For epidemiologists, national associations have set some criteria for admission to 'colleges', but competencies for an epidemiologist working in public health have only been defined in the USA.10

Discipline-specific competencies help a discipline to define their role within public health and guide training needs assessment and educational curricula development. During their 2004 strategic planning process, the Association of Public Health Epidemiologists of Ontario (APHEO) identified discipline-specific competencies as a priority and commissioned a review.11 APHEO chose to focus on entry-level epidemiologists who had become familiar with their role, akin to roughly two years experience, rather than management, specialist, or research roles.

This article describes collaboration between the authors and APHEO, using qualitative, quantitative and consensusbased research, to draft a set of core, discipline-specific competencies for epidemiologists in Ontario public health settings. We assumed that core competencies for public health epidemiologists would build upon, but not necessarily be identical to, core competencies for all public health practitioners.7 Our objective was to ascertain the views of public health epidemiologists in Ontario on their own core competencies. We could find no examples of competencies being defined by rigorous research methods and involving front-line staff.3-7,12 Hence, we started with key informants exploring what was unique about competencies of public health epidemiologists. Second, we surveyed front-line practitioners to get their input and validate potential competencies. Finally, we convened a consensus workshop to explore areas of disagreement and resolve conflicts. …