Play on Both Teams: Become a Public Health Pracademic

by Molly J. Gutilla, DrPH, MS

Public Health Pracademics will explore the intersection between academia and practice with an eye toward recognizing those already bridging this gap and encouraging others to embrace efforts to link science and practice.

Introducing Pracademics Series
What Is a Pracademic and Why Do We Need Them? (part 1)

This year’s theme at the Annual Meeting of the American Public Health Association (APHA) is “Creating the Healthiest Nation: Health Equity Now.” In preparing to attend this meeting, I’ve been thinking about what type of leadership and nationwide teamwork it will take to meet such a complex challenge and the steps I am taking to contribute to this call to action.

Reaching Health Equity Now will require great collaboration among multiple public health and healthcare disciplines, necessitate the close integration of academics and practitioners, and better link science and practice (Leandris et al, 2016). In addition, improved public health programs and policies engendering health equity can be accelerated by individuals that distinctly work as “pracademics.” Pracademics are those that communicate, collaborate, and strategize on both the academic campus and in the practice field (Posner, 2009). In this post, I’ll describe what distinguishes a pracademic. Later, in part 2 of my post, I’ll suggest specific actions to take to develop as a professional pracademic.

First, let’s look at the reasons practitioners and academics are often divided. Part of the separation can be attributed to different working environments. Academics are charged with conducting research and (usually) teaching students about public health. Frequently academics’ time at research universities is consumed with producing publications at a rate that leaves little opportunity for disseminating results to communities, let alone immersion or exposure to the application of their research. Conversely, practitioners, fully immersed in the day-to-day activities of their public health programs, have little time to conduct research, plan and evaluate, and broadly disseminate lessons learned from the ground up. This research-practice disconnect is aggravated by the separate settings in which academics and practitioners work. These distinct work cultures and traditions lend toward the development of distinct knowledge areas: academics develop explicit knowledge (ie, formal, systematic) while practitioners gain tactical knowledge (ie, observational, anecdotal) (Nonaka, 1994). By working in both areas, pracademics have the ability to leverage both knowledge types, create new understanding and ways of working, gain improved research and intervention skills, and engage communities in determining better public health solutions.

Let’s frame the work of a pracademic using an analogy. Picture a dance club. In this club, practitioners are those down dancing on the floor, while the academics stand up on a balcony studying and observing the people and parts interacting below. Pracademics, however, purposefully take the time to do both (Wesley, 2013). Pracademics dance on the floor and observe from the balcony, taking their knowledge and experience with them each time they go up or down the stairs. This way of working in public health requires energy and creativity, yet I believe it is a method for accelerating us toward our goal of creating Health Equity Now. In my next post, I’ll discuss the specific actions I take to work as a pracademic.

Do you identify as a pracademic? I’d love to hear how you develop your practice and academic skills and expertise to contribute to advancing public health and achieving health equity.

Molly Gutilla, DrPH, MS

Molly J. Gutilla, DrPH, MS, is an Assistant Professor at Colorado State University, Colorado School of Public Health. She works to have her feet, head, and heart on the academic campus and immersed in public health practice. She has worked on campuses including The Ohio State University, Williams College and the University of Colorado. She also spends time in public health practice, working as a practitioner in both urban and rural local public health, with the state health department, and alongside the non-profit community in Colorado. Follow her on LinkedIn