US Public Health Alphabet Soup Explained: What is the APHA?

The American Public Health Association is the professional society for the occupation of public health rather than healthcare.

“What is the APHA?” was one of the first questions I asked when I started studying epidemiology at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. That’s because the APHA does quite a bit of outreach to students, so even though I had worked in the field, it wasn’t until I was actually enrolled in an educational program that I found myself asking, “What is the APHA?”

What is the APHA?

The American Public Health Association (APHA) is the official occupational society for public health professionals. The APHA is the national society, and when you join, you can automatically join your local chapters (usually they are by state, but there are some variations). They are associated with the peer-reviewed American Journal of Public Health (AJPH), and hold a huge conference every year with thousands of people. The APHA is the main way you are supposed to do networking and career-building in public health.

What does the APHA do?

As I said, they organize a big conference every year in November, but I have gone twice, and I did not like it at all each time. The conference is just too big. The abstracts they accept range from amazing to “full of typos”. Therefore, I can’t really get an experience at this conference as a scientist. But I still would not dissuade a student from going, because they make a strong effort at having career-related booths and activities, and helping students get jobs.

When the APHA is not busy organizing conferences, they are trying to get their members interested in voting and serving on their committees. I strongly advocate to this to build leadership skills and learn more about our field, but I personally would not pick the APHA as the place where I want to do that. I feel that people who are interested in playing politics in public health leadership are the kind that take charge in APHA. They are full of bureaucrats, not activists, as far as I can tell.

All this leads to lobbying, and while the APHA is a very strong and powerful lobby, their priorities have historically not aligned with my priorities or actual public health priorities, a far as I can tell. This has to do with the whole co-option by bureaucrats and the alignment with industry rather than the public. And this all has to do with financial trouble in public health, where we have to rely on so many industries just to stay afloat, which is not the APHA’s fault, so I can’t really roast them for that.

My Take on the APHA

Before the pandemic, I was extremely critical of the APHA. Superficially, I was furious that I attended the conference twice – 8 years apart – and in both cases, it was a complete waste of my time. But more deeply, I was angry that I kept getting e-mails from them about so-called “public health priorities” that sounded like health insurance industry talking points.

I used to say that my number one public health priority was “police shooting Black people”, and until that was number one on the APHA’s list, nothing really was going to change in healthcare due to its systemic racism and sexism. I lived this reality in Minneapolis, where I worked in the correctional system, but I studied public health. I realized we could make most of our public health problems go away if we made most of our correctional system go away.

But the APHA didn’t want to talk about practical things like that, or about the mounting gun violence we were seeing as school shootings increased. The APHA would not face police brutality and the public health problems that come with overpolicing and incarcerating entire communities. The APHA would not even talk about the severe levels of systemic racism in our healthcare system. Even the people of color who would be voted into positions of power sounded like bureaucrats (which is why I never have wanted to be one).

But now the pandemic happened, and even the APHA seems to have been roused from its bureaucratic slumber. For the first time, I’m seeing mentions of “gun violence”, “police brutality”, and “systemic racism” in their e-mails about public health priorities. So when we ask, “What is the APHA” now, I hope our new answer is, “An agent for change” – finally!

Updated July 21, 2021.

Curious about the American Public Health Association (APHA) – what it does, and where it fits into the bigger picture of public health organizations? I delve into these topics, and explain how you can get involved.

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