Monday, September 28, 2009

Info Gathering is a Skill

I have two MPH student interns. This morning they were shocked to learn that my investigator has an MS, not an MPH. An MS in counseling psychology with no formal education in public health.

To be an epi investigator, you have to be able to talk to people. Crunching numbers is all fine and well, but you have to collect the data to begin with. My investigator has a background in crisis counseling. Perfect for this job. Because most people we are in contact with are in crisis. They have just found out they have a strange illness they may never have heard of, and the health department is calling them, asking questions. All most people know of this is what they've seen on TV, which we know is not always accurate. Having a background in crisis counseling helps my investigator calm the person down, provide some education, and get the information needed for the investigation.

In much public health work, we rely on people to give us information, willingly. It is all voluntary. People can (and do) hang up on us, or not even answer the phone. To do this job, you need to be skilled in social interaction. I am not that great on the phone with patients, which is why I have someone to do that for me. I am, however, pretty good at talking with docs, nurses, school administrators, mosquito control folks, sanitarians, etc.

A while back I had an intern who thought she was good with people. What she did, rather, was suck up to people. "Oh, Dr G, that is sooooo interesting!" "I'm sooooo impressed with people who have their PhDs!" I couldn't stand her. We both knew it was bullshit, so why bother?

I'm talking about being real with people. Don't treat them like they should give you the info you want just because you're you. And don't try to schmmoze people -- they see right through it.

This is a skill that most of the MPH students I interact with don't seem to have. I would say it is just a lack of working experience on their part, but I know these skills can be taught. I learned more about how to gather data from my qualitative methods courses in grad school than I ever did in the quantitative courses. The MPH programs I have worked with are so quantitative oriented, that they are missing that qualitative skill set.

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