By Lisa Akers, MS, RD, IBCLC, RLC
I have worked in public health for over a decade and it never ceases to amaze me the number of people who truly do not understand public health or the work that public health officials seek to accomplish. Public health by nature is preventative medicine. Public Health can better be described as “the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health through the organized efforts and informed choices of society, organizations, public and private, communities and individuals” (1920, C.E.A. Winslow). According the World Health Organization, public health is “an organized effort by society, primarily through its public institutions, to improve, promote, protect and restore the health of the population through collective action.” Public health seeks to prevent disease and is not in the business, necessarily, of treating disease. Breastfeeding, by nature, is disease prevention and by this fact alone, is positioned high on the national public health agenda.
It is important to understand these facts before understanding my role in breastfeeding promotion and support in public health. I am, in fact, the State Breastfeeding Coordinator for the Commonwealth of Virginia. My job is to manage breastfeeding support and promotion endeavors for the state. My responsibilities vary from day-to-day, but they typically includes such things as the development of public policy, media campaigns, curricula, publications and training; oversight of the Virginia WIC Breastfeeding and WIC Breastfeeding Peer Counselor Program; collaboration with numerous non-profit and academic entities, and service as the Virginia Department of Health liaison to the Virginia Breastfeeding Advisory Committee. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but simply a taste of the many things that I do from day-to-day.
Our emphasis in public health is on educating the practitioner as well as educating the general public in the support and promotion of breastfeeding. Since this article seeks to give readers an idea of what a typical day looks like in the field of public health, let me first start by painting a vivid picture for you.
You are a new breastfeeding mother, who has just given birth two weeks ago to a baby girl. You are a single mother, who receives no financial support from family or friends. You are concerned about making ends meet and providing for your daughter, so you plan to return to work within the next week. You currently work two part-time jobs at a retail establishment and a local restaurant. You make too much money to qualify for federal aid or entitlement programs, but luckily do quality financially to receive WIC benefits. Your biggest concern at the moment is continuing to breastfeed while returning to work and also being able to afford quality childcare that is supportive of breastfeeding for your daughter.
This is a typical scenario that is seen day-in and day-out both internationally and nationally. From the time that I start work every day, this is the scenario that continually plays in my mind. On a typical day, I am managing several million dollar budgets to ensure that this breastfeeding dyad is both supported and protected. These budgets help to run the breastfeeding support endeavors for the WIC program (including the WIC Breastfeeding Peer Counselor Program), support statewide policy initiatives related to breastfeeding, provide training opportunities and curricula to both clinicians and childcare providers, provide technical assistance to businesses and employers seeking to better understand and comply with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and provide training opportunities to public health personnel seeking to improve their knowledge of lactation management. On any given day, I handle correspondence from constituents, WIC participants, employers, childcare providers, clinicians, colleagues, and many others. A day in the life of public health breastfeeding support and promotion is ever-changing and never dull!
Public health gives me the autonomy and utilizes my creativity in many ways. One such way is in the development of numerous educational initiatives for clinicians and public health personnel. Most recently, this came to fruition in the development of two web-based educational opportunities for clinicians. The first is a web-based learning initiative, www.BreastfeedingTraining.org, which seeks to expand clinician’s knowledge of lactation management. The second web-based performance improvement initiative, www.BreastfeedingPI.org, seeks to improve the individual practice of clinicians. Both offer continuing education units and were developed in collaboration between the public and private sector in an effort to increase the knowledge base of healthcare professionals. Yet another avenue of education was in the development of an internship opportunity for WIC personnel. Most recently, we created an IBCLC internship for WIC personnel seeking to become IBCLCs with the ultimate goal of having at least one IBCLC in each WIC clinic site. This, not only, will help support the new breastfeeding mother in the above mentioned scenario, but will also aid in increasing the morale of WIC staff and WIC breastfeeding peer counselors, who seek job advancement and satisfaction.
Whether it be through education, policy, financial management of programs, or other avenues, my satisfaction in working to support and promote breastfeeding in public health comes from seeing the mother pictured in the scenario above reach her full potential.
Lisa Akers is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC). She completed her Bachelor and Master of Science Degrees in Clinical Dietetics from James Madison University. Lisa has been working in the field of public health and human lactation for over 12 years. Her current position as the State Breastfeeding Coordinator. In addition, Lisa serves as the List Serve Coordinator for the Women’s Health Dietetic Practice Group (DPG) and is the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ delegate to the United States Breastfeeding Committee. She also served as an Expert Workgroup member for the Academy’s Evidence Analysis Library, as a reviewer for the Academy’s most current position paper on the Promotion and Support of Breastfeeding, and as a reviewer for the reproductive section of the Nutrition Care Manual. Lisa is also the current 2012 World Breastfeeding Week Coordinator for the International Lactation Consultant Association.
In her spare time, Lisa enjoys sewing, quilting, and taking long motorcycle rides with her
husband in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia where she currently resides.