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What does it mean to be a population health fellow as an allied health professional, and why does it matter?

As an occupational therapist, embarking on a population health fellowship was a daunting experience. In my health care career, fellowships are often opportunities I see awarded to medical doctors. Given that this fellowship is focused on population health, this created an additional layer of uncertainty for me, as it is an area where few allied health professionals (AHPs) are pursuing careers. Being on this fellowship has provided me with the opportunity to advocate for more AHPs to take up roles within population health.

Allied health professionals are the third largest clinical workforce within the NHS and are a skilled set of clinicians equipped to support and manage the health and care of people from birth to the end of life. AHPs often focus on preventing ill health and helping to improve people's health and wellbeing, using holistic approaches to provide system-wide care. These skills are advantageous in population health, where the key focus areas are reducing health inequalities and improving health outcomes across a population.

I am often struck by colleagues’ reactions when discussing my fellowship. Many of my AHP colleagues have no knowledge around fellowships, what they are and how you pursue them, whereas my medical colleagues immediately know what a fellowship is and also have some insight into population health. This demonstrates not only the lack of knowledge around career development opportunities for AHPs but also the role they can play in population health.

When I began my fellowship, I was not surprised to meet just one other AHP in my cohort – and I am the only occupational therapist. I found many of the initial interactive sessions challenging to engage with, as I often found myself surrounded by doctors who all had similar training and work experience. These challenges made me reflect on my skills as an AHP and how, although these skills differed from my peers on the fellowship, they were still important and could allow me to make a valuable contribution. This sentiment rings true for all AHPs within the field of population health.

My role as an occupational therapist has enabled me to work across different sectors, providing holistic care that focuses on supporting individuals to do the things necessary for them to live fulfilled lives. Occupational therapy allows you to consider a person’s physical, mental, emotional, social and environmental wellbeing, and how these different aspects can contribute to improving their health outcomes. These values and holistic way of working align with the priorities of population health, as its core principals have a focus on the wider determinants of health and how these contribute to a person’s mental and physical health outcomes.

AHPs are seen as having an integral role in the broader systems that support population health work on the front line, but their expertise should also be used to support the development of population health prevention strategies and systems. The 2021 framework published by The Kings Fund for AHPs tackling health inequalities encourages AHPs to reflect on their roles within population health through building awareness, action and advocacy. This is the first published framework to provide clear guidance, with proactive steps that can be implemented through clinical practice, leadership and system change. This is a tool that will be required to support AHPs at every level to incorporate the values of population health within their work.

AHPs should start to recognise the valuable contributions they are already making within population health, but they should also consider their roles more widely, beyond just guiding systems, and look at how they can contribute to systems development on population health as well.

If AHPs are to move into more strategic roles within population health, it will require multiple stakeholders to be invested and engaged in the approach. Strategic AHP leads need to think about what career pathways look like for AHPs and encourage innovative ways of thinking and involvement in population health work in early careers for AHPs. This will create more avenues for career development in ways that are currently not available. Integrated care boards leading on population health should consider the AHP workforce within their networks and how they can use their contributions and skills to support preventive planning and work for population health.

As a population health fellow, I will be doing research to understand the experiences of clinical leaders within AHP professions in reducing health inequalities and improving health outcomes for people from diverse backgrounds. This study will aim to highlight the knowledge that AHP clinical leads have regarding their contribution to the field of population health but also to explore the facilitators and barriers they face in doing this work. I am interested to hear from people who are involved in similar work or would like to know more about what this project entails, so please get in touch.

Leadership for Population Health

This programme will support you to work and lead strategically with partners from across the health and care system to improve the health of your local population.

Find out more