A Complete Set of Skills: Using Project Management in Public Health

As an MPH student at UTHealth School of Public Health, I’ve gotten an in-depth look at how to measure disease burden, interpret complex biostatistics, and plan a targeted program using intervention mapping. While these hard skills are essential to my success, my real-world professional experience has taught me that these abilities are only half the battle. Skills to design, plan, and carry out a project are equally as important. For example, not only do I need to know why I should engage stakeholders, and identify who those stakeholders might be, but also how to do that. That’s where project management comes in. Being able to deliver the right stuff, at the right time, for the right amount of money is essential.

UNDERSTANDING PROJECT MANAGEMENT & THE TRIPLE CONSTRAINTS

The tools and concepts that have stemmed from the field of project management are applicable nearly everywhere, including public health. In my study of project management and my professional experience in public health, I have found The Triple Constraints and Stakeholder Engagement to be project management concepts that are critical for public health project success.

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MANAGING THE TRIPLE CONSTRAINTS

All projects are subject to the triple constraints: time, scope, and cost. Time refers to the amount of time allotted to complete a project, cost is how much money is available to complete the project, and scope is the ‘what’ of a project. It defines what requirements exist for the project to be completed correctly.

In public health, and any field for that matter, it is important to understand how these three constraints interact with one another. A change in one constraint almost always affects the others so it’s imperative to reevaluate all aspects of the project when a change occurs.

An example: A prospective study on how breastfeeding in infancy impacts health in adulthood.

ENGAGING THE RIGHT STAKEHOLDERS THROUGH COMMUNICATION

Public health has placed an increasing emphasis on engaging the right stakeholders in any project. Picture2A stakeholder can be anyone who has a vested interest in your project, including an oppositional interest. The list of potential stakeholders can include the community, coworkers, government, and more, including identifying the target population of a project as one of the most important contributors.

In the beginning stages of a project, Project Managers will identify the stakeholders and any relevant information like possible expectations and levels of influence. Then, they will create a communication plan that determines the flow of information between stakeholders. This plan lays out who will receive what information, when, and in what form. Having a plan like this can speed up the rate of communication while also ensuring that all relevant people have a say in each step. 

HOW YOU CAN TAKE ACTION

While the field of project management is extensive, it’s easy to take a few of the concepts or tools and apply them to public health in small ways. A straightforward way to apply the concepts of the triple constraints is to create a simple project charter, like the ones here. Don’t get bogged down in the details – write out the main goals of your project (scope), your budget (cost), and your overall plan to get there (time). Understanding the interconnectedness of three constraints puts you in a position where you can advocate for the needs of your team and the success of the project.

Ensure stakeholder engagement by creating a stakeholder register. A stakeholder register, like the ones here, list out stakeholders with their basic data along with useful information like expectations, influence, and impact. It’s important to ensure that the scope takes into account key stakeholder requirements while managing everyone’s expectations given the triple constraints. A completed stakeholder register can increase the likelihood of project success by preemptively identifying and avoiding potential issues.

As we get deeper and deeper into our fields, it’s easy to miss the opportunity to learn from other fields like project management. It is our duty as public health professionals to ensure that we are capitalizing on the collective knowledge of our population to increase the success rate of the projects that help our communities.


Written by: Tara Lee Vaughn, M.Ed.