Cathy Flanagin, MA, MPH
What attracted you to the field of public health?
I began working with the legislative public health committee in the late 1980s and developed a strong relationship with the Arkansas Department of Health, as well as a growing interest in their programs and appreciation for what they did. I was fortunate enough to begin working at ADH 1994. I have had a very diverse career in public health and have been very lucky to have worked in a wide variety of programs on a number of initiatives – strategic planning, communications, Hometown Health Improvement, preparedness and emergency response, infectious disease just to name a few.
What is your current job title and place of employment?
Director of Health Communications, ADH. Former job titles as ADH: Associate Branch Chief Preparedness & Emergency Response, Associate Branch Chief Infectious Disease, both at ADH.
How would you describe a typical work day?
I don’t think there is a typical day when you work in communications for a large agency. Public health is a dynamic field, and we work on everything from how a government shutdown would impact our employees and patients to informing the public about a foodborne illnesses to new and emerging threats to public health such as Ebola. We work with the news media to try to get information to the public as quickly as possible. Our department is also responsible for internal communications, which include weekly updates from the director and an employee newsletter. We have a wonderful team at ADH, and we do have a lot of meetings! I also respond to lots of emails. We design flyers, posters, newsletters, annual reports and brochures. We are also working on updating our website. We provide crisis and emergency risk communication to ADH employees who work with the media.
What is your advice for students considering a similar career path?
Do what you love and have a passion for. Public health is extremely important and can be very rewarding, but it does require dedication and hard work, and you won’t get rich in monetary terms, but you will in knowing you are working on things that will help improve the health of everyone.
I have been incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to do so many different things. A willingness to learn and try new things plus a lot of hard work have led me to where I am. There isn’t really a recipe, but I do think you have to be willing to get your foot in the door and try a variety of things before you find exactly what you like. For me I like almost everything. Though biostatistics was certainly not my best course I learned a lot and at least understand the basics, which helps me in my work now. The MPH gave me the tools and science to at least know the questions to ask to do my job.
What experiences or learning gained at UAMS or elsewhere have you found most beneficial professionally or helped you qualify for what you do?
I had experience in public health before I began the program at UAMS, but soon found out there was a lot I didn’t know. I think the program provided me with the science behind a lot of the work we do. It also gave me new insights into ways to approach both old and new public health problems.
Soon after I graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in history and political science, I began working at the Arkansas Bureau of Legislative Research. I staffed various legislative committees, including the Public Health Welfare and Labor Committee. Those experiences gave me the opportunity to learn a lot about news, politics, law, and research.
As I got to know the health department personnel at the time, I became more and more interested in many public health issues. I was first hired at the health department to work on health reform, but then was asked to focus on strategic planning. I believe my communications degree was an asset as we worked on that.
I also have a master’s degree in communications from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. The two degrees gave me a strong academic foundation for what I do as well as wonderful resources, contacts and a network of other professionals to bounce ideas off of.
What do you find most rewarding about your work in public health?
Knowing that as overwhelming as the health problems facing our country today may be, that they can be addressed through public health, and one of the best ways is through prevention – an important foundation of public health. We want to keep people from becoming ill from unsanitary water or foodborne illnesses, eliminate preventable illnesses by immunizing children and adults, and keep people from being injured in car accidents. So we advocate seatbelts, car seats, etc. Public health is a strong community partner and works with the medical system to detect and control disease. It is very rewarding to work with dedicated professionals from so many disciplines – physicians, epidemiologists, environmental health specialists, communicable disease nurses, and many others.