Heidi Harris

Public Health Planner (Psychology and Sociology, BA; Community Psychology, MA)

Heidi Harris, Region of Waterloo Public Health

Heidi Harris graduated in 2009 with a BA in psychology and sociology, followed by accomplishing an MA in community psychology in 2012. Upon entering university, Heidi was focussed on a career as either a high school teacher or university professor. Recognizing the importance of building her resumé, Heidi initiated research and teaching assistantships to further test her career theories. By her third year of study, Heidi confirmed that, while she enjoyed conducting research related to social issues, it was important to her to find a career that would provide her with an equal amount of time to apply research toward the common good. Following a trip to the Career Centre early in her undergraduate program, Heidi met with a career consultant and underwent some self-assessments that she believes provided her with valuable insights into what she would, and would not enjoy in a career. “I cannot stress how much going to the Career Centre early on in my academic studies has helped me to shape my early career.”

During Heidi’s masters degree, she underwent an eight-month practicum at the Region of Waterloo Public Health. She enjoyed public health for its focus on prevention, equity and social justice, which very much aligned with her own values. The public health field entailed many research projects where there were opportunities to witness that research unfold into concrete action plans and health programming. After finishing her practicum, Heidi accepted a three-month internship in Citizen Service, followed by a service improvement specialist position with the Region of Waterloo. Knowing she had her mind set on public health, she eventually applied for, and accepted her current position of public health planner.

Within Heidi’s current role, she provides centralized support for broad public health initiatives within the Strategic and Quality Initiatives unit. A typical week for Heidi might involve the following:

  • Using various sources of data (e.g. local data, literature reviews, community consultation, consulting other health units) to develop recommendations to directors on how to address a health inequity. For example, public health is currently working to increase access to public health services for immigrants and refugee populations in Waterloo Region.
  • Reviewing colleagues’ research/evaluation proposals to ensure that ethics standards and legislative requirements are met when it comes to participant’s privacy and ensuring clients are protected from any potential risks.
  • Writing a policy or procedure for Research and Ethics Approval in the department and developing supporting material.
  • Conducting interviews and focus groups with staff, managers and/or directors to develop a strategy coupled with a work plan to better equip staff with the research support, training and tools to do their jobs more effectively, and implementing components of that plan.
  • Working with community groups and Epidemiologists to develop a series of fact sheets on a topic within public health. This might involve consulting community groups to identify what information would help them better serve their clients, interpreting data, creating tables and writing text explanations using plain language.
  • Acting as a liaison between public health management and community groups when health advocacy issues arise.
  • Meeting with cross department groups to assist with developing a public engagement policy/guideline and online tools to help Region of Waterloo employees improve engagement with the public.

Heidi really enjoys working at the municipal level because it affords her the opportunity to witness the positive impact that her team is making on the community and notes that a career in public health provides many opportunities to continually learn new skills.

When invited to address challenges in her career, Heidi notes that sometimes there are ideas for a public health intervention that would undoubtedly improve community health, but sometimes it cannot be implemented at the municipal level since the majority of funding for public health occurs at the provincial level to accomplish the Ontario Public Health Standards (OPHS).

To become a public health planner, also referred to as a, health promotion specialist, you will need a masters in a related discipline. Some training options might be a Masters of Public Health, Community Psychology or Social Work. Heidi notes that the education and training requirements can vary across jurisdictions and levels of government, so make sure to research specific job qualification requirements for the different roles within public health. A great resource to begin that research would be to access this diagram , as well as the profiles of other public health professionals on the Region of Waterloo website.

Heidi notes that the most important skills and attitudes that would make a person satisfied and successful with this type of role would be someone who is interested in research, evaluation, communications and project management; has a service-oriented attitude and someone who is highly motivated to improve quality of life for the public. Some personality factors to consider as to whether you will be suited for this type of work might be whether you are:

  • Comfortable working in a mostly structured office environment that allows for some innovation.
  • Enjoy doing desk work/individual work about 70% of the time.
  • Open to change and very different perspectives when working with others and community groups.
  • Able to see the big picture and think strategically, but still able to think realistically and implement effectively.

To provide a broader sense of what public health planners do, Heidi outlined a few additional examples:

  • Analyze health inspection data and make recommendations.
  • Plan and evaluate the effectiveness of public health harm reduction programs.
  • Utilize various sources of data to identify a population who experiences greater health inequity in the community and to make recommendations on how to best intervene.
  • Public health planners have to think strategically, plan and evaluate, so there are lots of opportunities to advance to management and senior positions within all levels of government.
  • Some planners move into other areas of planning, research consulting, policy and organizational development.

Heidi notes that over the last decade, there have been many calls to strengthen the public health workforce. “Incidents such as SARS taught valuable lessons in the importance of public health prevention, and rough estimates (2002-03) suggest that public health expenditures in Canada account for only 1.8–2.5% of total expenditures on health overall. Although the prevention of disease and injury can save the overall system money, spending on individual care is about thirty times greater than public health spending.” Heidi indicated that given the growing focus on prevention from a cost-benefit perspective, there is more potential for growth than a decrease in this field. In addition, there will be an even greater focus on identifying and addressing health inequities to reach underserviced populations. Public health continues to be an evidence-based field and is working toward being more results-oriented to demonstrate how it is making a difference. As a result, Heidi is seeing more quality improvements positions being posted in the field to ensure health units are meeting a common set of indicators.

Heidi strongly recommends for students to seek out professionals in careers of interest to them to act as mentors, which is something Heidi initiated during her tenure as both a student and young professional. Through the use of informational interviewing, Heidi gained the opportunity to talk with professionals in fields of interest to her to discuss academic and career options and help her network with community contacts. If a student is serious about considering a career in public health, Heidi points out that most government agencies and local municipalities hire university students over the spring and summer, or accept students for practicums throughout the year. By seeking out these roles within government throughout your studies, you can begin to see if government and public health are a fit for you while also increasing your chances of being hired after university. Recent graduates who have exceled in their student placements are well positioned to compete for vacancies at the Region of Waterloo. Heidi also recommends getting acquainted with Health Promotion Ontario, Public Health Ontario, as well the Ontario Health Promotion E-Bulletin where there is a wealth of related information including events, announcements and job postings.

Final words of wisdom: “Don’t get lost in the university bubble! Take advantage of the supports available to you, especially when it comes to planning your career! Go to the Career Centre in your first year of academic studies. View the three to eight years you spend in university as an opportunity to not only learn and grow as a person, but to do everything you can to discover and plan your ideal career path!”