By Anthony Robbins, MD, MPA
I am always just a little skeptical about public health education. Do students learn to apply the principles they learn? Recently, I was able to answer in the affirmative, at least about a single occurrence.
When I walked into the restroom of a Cambridge restaurant, one of the two urinals was occupied by a man in a white cook’s uniform. Familiar with the observational studies that suggest that restaurant staff often ignore hand washing, I waited to see what he would do before returning to the kitchen. I was ready to say something were his hand washing cursory. But no, he took a full two minutes, scrubbing both hands with soap; and not just his paws, but up his forearms toward the elbow. He rinsed with running water and let it drip down before using the paper towels.
As he turned to leave, I said, in what must have been a professorial tone, “I want to commend you on that hand washing.”
He smiled and said, “I’m a public health student at Boston University, in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics,” as if to explain his behavior.
“Well, I’m a public health doc and used to teach at BU. In fact, I am having lunch here with a colleague from BU.”
I returned to the table and reported that I had a lovely experience in the men’s room. My colleague looked askance until I told him what had happened.
And I felt good that my skepticism has been overcome, if just for once.
Anthony Robbins, MD, MPA is co-Editor of the Journal of Public Health Policy. He directed the Vermont Department of Health, the Colorado Department of Health, the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the U.S. National Vaccine Program.