The sphere of public health

Published on June 17, 2015
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The sphere of public health is low-hanging fruit for veterinarians considering a transition out of clinical practice, Dr. Heather N. Fowler said.

Dr. Fowler is a public health veterinarian and a member of the 2013-2014 class of the AVMA Future Leaders Program. The class created an online toolkit to help AVMA members with career transitions and put on programming about career transitions during the 2014 AVMA Annual Convention.

“I’m not your traditional veterinarian,” Dr. Fowler said. “Growing up, I always wanted to be a small animal clinical veterinarian, even own my own practice, like everyone tells you. But as I got older, I wanted to make somewhat of a broader impact beyond just clinical practice.”

Dr. Heather N. Fowler, a doctoral student at the University of Washington School of Public Health, collects samples during a laboratory rotation. She encourages other veterinarians to go into the field of public health. (Photo by Katherine B. Turner/UW School of Public Health)

Immediately after earning her veterinary degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 2010, Dr. Fowler went on to earn her master’s in public health from Yale University. She completed an applied epidemiology fellowship at the Minnesota Department of Health, and now she is a doctoral student at the University of Washington School of Public Health in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences.

Dr. Fowler led the planning of a luncheon at the 2014 convention featuring veterinarians in fields beyond clinical practice. Since then, a number of clinical practitioners have turned to her for advice while considering a transition to public health.

They want to know what it’s like to work in public health and if she enjoys her job. To answer the first question, she recommends shadowing a local public health veterinarian for a day or at least reaching out to talk.

Yes, she does enjoy her job. She said, “The thing I love the most about public health practice is communication and outreach.”

She has enjoyed investigating outbreaks of infectious disease. She worked on outbreaks of foodborne and zoonotic disease in Minnesota, and a lot of the work came down to communication and outreach. She moved into academia partly because she enjoyed duties such as giving talks about rabies and explaining the risks of illness from contact with backyard poultry.

Public health veterinarians also work in laboratories. Dr. Fowler’s research interests during her current studies on environmental and occupational health include occupational hazards of animal care workers.

She asks clinical practitioners considering public health if they are able to relocate. There are plenty of fellowships, but some require moving. Local and state health departments also offer various opportunities.

A master’s in public health can be helpful, and many MPH programs are part time. Another route into public health is to work for the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Dr. Fowler said veterinary medicine is flexible, “and you kind of know how flexible it is coming into the door.” When considering a career transition, she said, one thought is always in the back of veterinarians’ minds: “I’ll try this for a couple of years, see if it works.”

Related JAVMA content:

Taking the leap (July 1, 2015)