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Bridging Divides to Transform Healthcare: Public Health Social Work in Action

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

What does it mean to be a public health social worker? CISWH’s Boston University Advancing Leadership in Public Health Social Work (BU-ALPS) project explores the career paths and impact of MSW/MPH alumni.

Bonnie Wennerstrom, MSW, MPH, Healthier Washington Connector, Seattle, WA 

Bonnie Wennerstrom is a 2011/2012 graduate of the MSW/MPH Program at Boston University, where she majored in Clinical Practice at the School of Social Work and Maternal and Child Health at the School of Public Health.

Bonnie chose an MSW/MPH program as a result of a workplace encounter with a social worker. “While working at Planned Parenthood, I had the opportunity to participate in an agency-sponsored program called Planned Parenthood University. At one point, I asked the instructor, an MSW, about her graduate education and she told me that if she had it to do over again she would have done an MSW/MPH program. I started looking and saw that MSW/MPH education would encompass both person-focused interventions and population-level systems change. At the time, I wanted to focus on reproductive health and saw that the marriage of social work and public health would allow for the study of both healthcare and human behavior, which is important for understanding reproductive and sexual health, and for influencing outcomes in this area. I was unsure of my exact career goals at the time, but the professional options for someone with MSW/MPH training seemed to be broad enough to allow me to keep my plans open-ended.”

Bonnie further observes, “Within public health social work, my area of study and emphasis has always been healthcare, broadly defined, but scoped within the United States system and landscape.” Following graduation, Bonnie worked as a Health Center Manager for two busy Planned Parenthood offices in the Pacific Northwest. In 2016, she joined the Washington State Health Care Authority, where her job title is “Connector.” To better understand what she does, it’s important to understand the agency. The Washington State Health Care Authority (HCA) is a cabinet-level state agency primarily responsible for administering Medicaid and public employee/school employee health benefits. Statewide and multi-sectoral, HCA supports health system transformation by focusing on value in health care, systems integration and addressing unmet social needs. The work addresses many areas: population health, rural health, behavioral health, public health, social determinants, health equity, regional collaboration, data strategies, and more. The agency budget is braided between state funds, federal funds, and federal, state, and local grants.

“I truly believe in the transformative power of public health social work. It is not just the marriage of two skill sets, but instead represents a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Because these projects require collaboration across government agencies, tribes, health plans, traditional and nontraditional providers, business, and others, Bonnie’s “connector” position was created. She acts as an intermediary between all internal aspects of the agency’s work, bringing people and projects together to help move all systems, more efficiently and cohesively, to achieve the agency’s goals. Bonnie’s everyday work involves a complex array of activities: managing contracts between agencies, translating policy recommendations for operations and finance, providing thought partnership to multiple groups, writing reports for grant compliance, convening partners and stakeholders, and making recommendations to interagency leadership.

Bonnie notes that she proudly displays both degrees in her signature, even though “the concept of public health social work or a public health social worker does not exist within this agency.” She is also proud of the successes she has had on the job and observes that she is able to influence the direction of the agency’s work, successfully convene groups, and facilitate collaboration across stakeholder differences.

In reflecting on the respective roles of social work and public health, she notes, “From my perspective, public health has the ability to understand and influence the levers at the highest levels of the health and wellness systems in our society, something that social work has traditionally not been able to do. Social work supports individuals and programs; it engages in community development and advocacy. Public health picks it up at that point, and moves it to the federal, and even global, levels.” She notes that traditional public health is sometimes challenged by understanding how vulnerable individuals and groups experience public health programs and policies. She appreciates that she has a social work skill set that enables understanding of such issues as intergenerational trauma and the links between social services and social determinants of health. This has helped by providing a needed context in making determinations about which services and initiatives will have positive impact on vulnerable people who need it the most.

Bonnie’s clinical skills are never far away. “Often, my clinical skills are used with my colleagues! With any cross- disciplinary initiative that involves several groups of passionate people with different values, moving forward can be a challenge, and being able to set up safe spaces for discussion and negotiation has been powerful.”

“I truly believe in the transformative power of public health social work. It is not just the marriage of two skill sets, but instead represents a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Despite this, being a public health social worker requires the ability to navigate uncharted waters. You need to be a pioneer and a champion of a professional role and skill set that is not universally recognized.”

Her recommendation to current and future MSW/MPH students? “It’s fine for students to be unsure about what they want to do, and to let some career questions remain unanswered. Because we are innovators, it does not necessarily make sense to have it all figured out ahead of time. The process of bringing these two degrees and fields together will help you evolve into your own definition of an innovative public health social work practitioner.”

This profile is excerpted from Advancing Leadership in Public Health Social Work Education: MSW/MPH Program Handbook. This free resource, designed to help schools with their efforts to establish, promote, improve, and evaluate MSW/MPH programs, was produced by CISWH’s BU-ALPS project and funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This information or content and conclusions are those of the author and should not be construed as the official position or policy of, nor should any endorsements be inferred by HRSA, HHS or the U.S. Government.