How to bring your public health passion to life – from teacher to public health student at Yale, with Neal Patel

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In this episode, Sujani sits down with Neal Patel, a current MPH student and former teacher. Neal shares an inspiring story of what led him to pursue an MPH degree and how those in public health can take action in helping their communities of interest.

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • How Neal’s experience as an educator inspired him to pursue public health
  • Neal’s experience of taking action and organizing community health projects 
  • What skills an MBA can provide for those who want to make changes in the health of their community
  • How business administration plays a role in addressing health disparities in the community
  • Advice from Neal on how to find your niche in public health 
  • Advice from Neal on how to move past contemplation and into action
  • How Neal’s background as a teacher has helped and shaped his public health career
  • What teachers can learn from public health, and what public health can learn from teachers

Today’s Guest:

I was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, but grew up in Charleston, SC. I graduated from Clemson University in May of 2017 with a BS in Genetics and a BS in Biochemistry. I was not super clear as to what direction I wanted to pursue post-graduation – I was thinking about medical school, but after speaking with several physicians about their experiences, I wanted to delay and try something new. So after college, I moved to Tulsa, OK to serve as a Teach For America Corps Member. I taught 7th/8th grade Math at Hale Junior High School. My experience in the classroom exposed me to the breadth of disparity in health outcomes/experiences for my students/families compared to many of my peers in college. As I transitioned to work as the Manager of Alumni Leadership for Teach For America, where I did a fair amount of organizing work for community health initiatives, I began to see how systemic these disparities were, so I decided to learn more. I’m currently at the Yale School of Public Health pursuing my MPH in Health Policy, where I have further developed my passions in data-driven solutions, health economics, policy evaluation, and health communications.

As I continue on this path, I hope to connect with more folks in the healthcare world to ideate and reimagine health in our country. Happy to chat whenever!

Featured on the Show:

Other Resources:

Episode Transcript

Neal 0:00
When we identify those things, and we see what the problem is or what the inequity is what truly resonates with you, I think that is the platform that you should take the next step one.

Sujani 0:20
Welcome to PH SPOTlight, a community for you to build your public health career with. Join Us Weekly right here. And I’ll be here too, your host Sujani Siva, from PH SPOT.

Sujani 0:36
Hi, Neal, and welcome to the PH SPOT podcast. And thank you for joining us. I’m very excited to jump into this conversation about kind of how you found public health and what you’re hoping to do in the field, especially with the background that you come with. So thank you and welcome.

Neal 0:53
Yeah, no, thanks for having me. I’m excited.

Sujani 0:56
For our listeners, Neal has a very interesting, I guess, pathway into public health. And Neal was a teacher a couple of years before, I guess you discovered public health, or maybe you discovered it earlier on, and you just kind of had in the back of your mind. So let’s just jump right into it. And can you tell us how did you decide to pursue public health as your next career after teaching for a couple of years?

Neal 1:25
Loaded question. Before I taught, I went to school at Clemson University, I majored in biochemistry and genetics, was in a pre med path. I guess, in retrospect, I find that a lot of public health folks have similar paths of you know, pre med path wanting to pursue medicine. I think for me, I had graduated and kind of had the perspective that medicine is a long haul. And I don’t think I was quite ready for that yet, to be honest. And so I kind of wanted to take a break and take a gap. And I applied for this program called Teach for America, and was placed in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to teach seventh and eighth grade math. And I share all of that, because I think the real world experience and perspectives I was able to gain through the classroom, through my students, through the parents, through the teachers, and also just like some other teachers through the program itself as they came from, like all over the country. I think those conversations, those experiences really pushed me towards public health, mainly because I have a lens of a pre med student. And then because of that lens, and I think a lot of the students that I work with, just had certain barriers towards education. And they were health related, at least just because of the lens that I had, you know, so I had a student, she had a pair of glasses, she was nearsighted, farsighted, right? She probably had astigmatism. They were two years out of date. And so that kind of led to the conclusion like, I can see why, quote, unquote, someone would call you a disruptive student. Right?

Sujani 3:05
Yeah.

Neal 3:05
There’s a reason behind it. It’s not that you are inherently disruptive, it’s that you cannot see, you cannot participate. You know, another student, Jose, wanted to play soccer. I was a soccer coach, and couldn’t play because you got your first physical and now you found out you have a heart condition. Why did it take at the age of 14 to find out that you have that. Another student Jaden Battles, but that was a tougher situation. But he’s a young kid trying to help his mom who has type one diabetes, and ensure that she’s taking it at the right times. And that’s a seventh grade student, that lens and obviously it gets the situations I was put in really shed light to this idea of, okay, there’s a lot of people that have barriers or issues or fundamentally, we’ll call them inequities. And how can we change that and so that pre med lens shifted towards not just the individual, but populations. And I think my idea of like pursuing public health was sharpened and having conversations with other physicians and other doctors that I had in my network. And it sharpened the idea of like, okay, what you’re talking about is public health, not medicine. And I say that that didn’t just happen overnight. There’s a classroom again, I was in Tulsa for four years. So it took some time to kind of flush it out and kind of really sharpen the idea. But the four years in Tulsa provide a lot of clarity. And yeah, that’s kind of how I got into public health.

Sujani 4:33
Yeah, you you graduated from your undergrad in 2017. And then you decide to go teach through Teach for America. And presumably, like when you landed that job, you were in the mindset that, you know, you would do this for a couple years and then go right into medicine, right? Is that the plan that you had, I guess, initially drawn out for yourself?

Neal 4:57
I like that you asked that question. Yeah, that’s exactly what it is, I think, as many other pre meds are folks applying to medical school or kind of wanting to pursue medicine, we have a tendency to plan year 2, 3, 4 in advance. You know, so yeah, that was definitely the plan of I would do this for two years and then make my pursuits towards medicine. And-

Sujani 5:21
No, it’s, it’s quite interesting, like you mentioned some of these students that have still left a mark on you. And how early do you think you started making those connections like these students, I’m sure you’re- you’re seeing this day in and day out. And it’s probably frustrating when you go into the classroom to know that you couldn’t do anything that was going to change your life overnight. When did you kind of start using your pre med lens to look at these situations that your students were in and start making those connections? And really, like think about the problem?

Neal 5:56
I would say towards the end of my last year of teaching.

Sujani 6:00
Okay.

Neal 6:01
Honestly, I wouldn’t say like, oh, I was doing public health.

Sujani 6:04
Yeah.

Neal 6:05
I would say that I just started on a path to try and really just provide a particular solution for my students, but something that was going to be effective in the long term. And so I actually took a chance on my own and applied for a grant through the local health department through a another nonprofits located in Tulsa, called MediCare and on a whim, apply for it and got it. And so the idea was to try and essentially do a mobile health clinic kind of idea, but take it a step further and actually co localize services, of support. And so the idea was to do essentially, like pop up clinics, and do those pop up clinics, in school environments or school settings. The idea was to do that in like addressing issues with trust, you know, students and parents, the highest level of trust that they have.

Sujani 7:06
Right.

Neal 7:06
Institution in our community is the place of school, a place of education, so that hopefully tackle those issues and those barriers, and then have people come in to have really just kind of quick touch points on health, not invasive, not high touch points, but just low touch points of care, where they can get, you know, somewhat of a baseline on their health, you know, a quick eye exam, etc, and just have all of those kinds of services have one location. Yeah, that was like, towards the end of my second year, kind of starting my job with my nonprofits, which was perfect, because part of my job with Teach for America, like working for the nonprofit itself, as an alumni manager, was to kind of do a little bit of community organizing. And so this kind of all aligned, weirdly enough, and by the time I was working with Medicare to try and I guess, like, really initiate this project, the pandemic happened in March. So I didn’t get to see that project all the way through, but I think I just had reflections about it afterwards, of what could have happened. And then I also thought more about, like, has has been done before, and then did a lot of research on that. And so that there’s some pain points about it, as well. It’s not always successful, it depends on the community.

Sujani 8:21
Right.

Neal 8:22
That experience and kind of debriefing that with myself and reflecting on it really kind of pushed me more towards public health and sharpened the idea of like, okay, now it’s time to like, probably expand my education, rather than just try something. I probably want to know more about it before I try and maybe do another initiative, or maybe pursue something else, like what is public health? What did all of the aspects of you know, it’s interdisciplinary? And what are the aspects of public health that I’m best positioned to tackle?

Sujani 8:55
I love that. Now, that’s amazing. Where do you think you got the inspiration to just like, do it yourself? Because I would kind of think that someone would see these situations get frustrated, think about doing something, but then like taking the first step, or that like that action is often delayed so much, and sometimes you just never end up doing it. I’m curious to hear where you found the motivation or inspiration, like what was it that really like pushed you to say, okay, let me Google what grants are available. Let me actually take the time to apply to these grants.

Neal 9:32
It’s a good question. To be honest, I, I will say I’ll relate it back to the classroom. But I’ll share a particular story that really affected me and has sustained me and really pushed me to follow all the way through, because I get that and I relate to that and I’ll share another story.

Sujani 9:48
Yeah.

Neal 9:49
Talked about him earlier. Jaden. So I was tutoring Jaden one day. In seventh grade. He was bright student, always was smiling, and was an orchestra student and he loved playing the violin. But I was tutoring him in math after class one day after school, and he had gotten a phone call from his little brother, who was a kindergarten student that his mom had, essentially, he was describing, in his own words as a five year old could, that his mom had passed out. And Jaden, he would walk to school every day. But he had no idea like what to do in this situation, his mom passed out, I think through further conversation with his little brother, he kind of came to the conclusion that his mom had a diabetic attack, and was having a diabetic attack. And he just didn’t know what to do next. And so he kind of just looked at me with wide eyes. And I was like, I have not been trained for this. I have not been prepared for this. And so I just kind of reacted on instinct. I took him home, that he didn’t really know the directions, we just followed his path that he would take walking. So he’s like, I usually walk here, and then I go on this route. So I was speeding a little bit, for sure, driving down to his place. And we finally get to his place. And his mom is like, passed out with trash all over her. And I noticed that there’s like a trash can that she used to, I guess, probably the proper self up. So I grabbed a piece of mail, I call 911. And like, give the address, and then I grabbed some juice from the fridge and trying to get her to drink some. And so I asked Jaden and his brother just kind of sit off on the couch with Jaden just distract him. Eventually, she kind of wakes up, and then the EMTs arrive, and they resuscitate her. She’s like more awake. And then they put her in the ambulance and take her to a hospital. And so there’s a lot in that moment, you know, stressful and hard to kind of, I guess, debrief and process. But I think that moment was really like influential to essentially follow through. Because when I think about like, applying for that grant or trying to, like get this colocalization of services, if you will, I think that moment was the moment like, I’m not gonna stop until there’s like an effective solution for Jaden or list any other student, honestly.

Sujani 12:24
Yeah.

Neal 12:25
I- it just so happened that I had to face that situation with Jaden and his mom. But a lot of the reflections that I took from that is why is she in this situation? Like, why did she do this? Why didn’t she take her medicine? Right?

Sujani 12:39
Right.

Neal 12:39
And I caught myself. And I think this is just through the training that Teach for America provided, but also just like growing up, we start to understand what was in someone’s locus of control and what is not. And I think, I noticed that I kept saying, she, she she. And I think I realized, like, wait, who she is, is a single mother of two, who’s likely working quite a few jobs, or, you know, two or three, at least in order to provide for living, for food, etc. Which is why Jaden walks home, if he needs to stay like there’s no ride, there’s no situation available, because she’s busy. And so if that is who she is, this is something that is out of her locus of control, like she’s a product of certain circumstances, rather than her insurances really being at fault. Yeah, so that really pushed me to like, follow through find grants. And I think that kind of stuff I’ll say is, I’m just blessed that happen, education and know, to a degree, how a part of the world works. You know, I knew how to do research and find these things. And, you know, go to local health department and what services are available through research finding grants, etc. But that’s kind of like what inspired that moment. And it haunts me. And so even share this. And this is a newer reflection, I guess from that moment, more recent one. But as much as that I was glad that that whole situation happened, I think, now through my current experience, being in school at Yale and getting my MPH, as much as one would say like, oh, I’m so glad you were able to help her and like figure out that situation. I also think, did I make the situation worse? And I share that because the costs associated with healthcare, and paying for an ambulance, etc. That’s now on her, whether she had insurance or not, there’s going to be certain costs associated. Maybe her premium goes up. Maybe she doesn’t have insurance. Maybe there’s a new medical outstanding medical bill. So did I actually help? I don’t know. Was there a better way to do it? I don’t know. And I am laughing now. But I think it’s just like a reaction I’m having.

Sujani 14:57
Yeah.

Neal 14:58
But it’s- it’s hard. It’s complicated. And that just kind of shows there’s a lot of layers to public health. And I think just because of that, there’s a lot of layers to help. There’s a lot of things to do.

Sujani 15:11
Have you kept in touch with Jaden since leaving Teach for America?

Neal 15:17
Yeah, not just Jaden. But you know, a few of my students will message me on Facebook. I’ve added them on Facebook. So I’ll get a couple of messages from I’ve had Jose, message me, I’ll check it on Jaden.

Sujani 15:30
Yeah.

Neal 15:31
But a couple other students as well. I miss my students, for sure. And, interestingly enough, just because of my process, they actually, some of them will be graduating this year. So they’ll, by the end of May, early June, they will graduate, they will walk in graduate high school. So I’m, like, really excited about that. I’m going to try my best to make it out there. But, you know, we’ll see. And I’m just excited that, you know, some of them are gonna be walking.

Sujani 16:00
Thanks to of course, like the influence you had in their life for sure. And I mean, it’s unfortunate. You are kind of in that situation with Jaden’s mom. And you’re right, the health system is just complicated, right? All around the world. And especially so yes, with, with the situation that Jaden and his mom were in. I like that you’re very reflective, you know, even number of years after that. And the question of like, constantly asking why something is the way it is, I think, can really help us think about solutions, let alone maybe perhaps even take the next step to act on it. So I think for a lot of individuals I’ve spoken to who are like, very passionate about public health. And I think what I hear often is that passionate about public health, but I kind of get stuck in terms of like, what do I do about that passion? Or like, how can I take this step into building a career that I know is like kind of aligned with what I think I want to do. And I don’t know if you have something to offer just based on your experience and being in like situations with your seventh and eighth grade students and constantly thinking about, like wanting to do something and knowing you have the drive and the passion to change something in the system? I don’t know if you have anything to offer kind of for someone that says, yeah, I have the passion, but I don’t know what to do in public health yet.

Neal 17:31
Yeah. This is actually a question that I’ve been asked also just by certain peers here.

Sujani 17:38
Yeah.

Neal 17:39
Right. Yeah. So I think this just comes someone with experience, sometimes. I would say a couple of things here. I think, if you’re passionate about public health, honestly, ask yourself why. And I say that, because there are some people in public health who are in public health to complement it with medicine. And we’ve seen that trend. And that is okay, that can be your answer. This is I’m public passionate about public health, because I want to use it in this way. In practice, when I go to medical school, I think that’s fine. But that is not everybody. And I think, for the folks who aren’t in that category, I do think it is helpful to get experiences outside of school. The reason why I say that, and I’m saying this now, in retrospect, is something I hope or wish someone told me, I’d say that because it doesn’t have to be teaching. It doesn’t have to be anything particular, could simply be volunteering with an organization that you really are passionate about or enjoy. But the reason why I say that experience is key is because if public health is what you’re passionate about, then you will view sad experiences through that lens. And I think it helps you identify in the real world, where public health is, what public health is, but also what the issues are in particular. And I think so often, when we identify those things, and we see what the problem is or what the inequity is, what truly resonates with you, I think that is the platform that you should take the next step on. And so for me, in particular, had shared that story about Jaden. I knew public health was the direction I wanted to go. And I want to preface and saying that you don’t have to have such a formative, I guess I’ll call it.

Sujani 19:35
Yeah.

Neal 19:36
It can simply be I was volunteering here and through because it also took conversations with other people outside of that experience for me to know as public health but I would say engaging experience that you really enjoy, talk to some people, connect with some people. And then for me after said experience, I’m still reflecting on it and I have become really passionate about economics, costs, causality, and why certain things are the way they are, why certain policies have this effect. And I’ll probably ask you this, I don’t think that’s something that you expected me to say after that experience. So it very much often changes. But for me, I’ve made that connection because of my- my latest reflection from that moment with Jaden was the cost associated with, did I help? Or did I hinder? Right? And so that question is probably going to sustain me for a while. But I think that that, in and of itself has pushed me in this direction towards costs.

Sujani 20:40
Yeah.

Neal 20:41
I keep thinking about it. And then I learned more about it. And so I think that really is the difference, I think, engage in certain experiences that you’re passionate about, and then reflect on them because that can change the way you view public health, because it is so broad, and it is so in its in their disciplinary. Yeah, I think that’s- that’s kind of what I have to offer, the experiences in your past, or the experiences that you engage with can help inform your future steps. And the last thing I’ll say is, you don’t always have to have it figured out.

Sujani 21:09
Right. Yeah.

Neal 21:10
I think it’s important to understand like, you don’t always have to have it figured out, I think some of the people who enter public health were pre med. And sometimes it’s hard to shake that. Okay, this is what I’m going to do for the next three years mentality, kind of planning it all out. But you know, that doesn’t have to be a hindrance, it can be an asset, if you use that in a way of these are the experiences I’m going to engage in. And hopefully at this point in time, I will just check in with myself.

Sujani 21:38
Yeah.

Neal 21:39
And see what’s really resonating with me, and then move on that. Just take the next step and moving on that.

Sujani 21:45
Yeah.

Neal 21:45
That’s my piece of advice. I hope that’s helpful.

Sujani 21:47
Yeah, no, that’s really, really great advice. And I wrote a reflection of a blog post for PH SPOT on something similar, I had jumped into a public health degree after my undergrad kind of immediately. And one of the reflections that I had was, could I have had a different experience? Had I worked for a couple of years before jumping into degree? I mean, I think I would have perhaps, you know, rather than taking some of the classes on a more theoretical basis, I would have actually had more of a reflective experience where I thought about my experiences and tried to apply what I was learning to those experiences similar to what you’re doing right now. So I agree with that. And, you know, to your question of whether I expected you to say that you are interested in economics, I wasn’t, but as you’re speaking about it, I’m kind of thinking about the path that you took, right? You know, wanting to be interested in medicine, where you’re focused on the individual. And then discovering public health and wanting to do a public health degree, you’re kind of going up to the system level. And I think it makes perfect sense where you’re constantly being reflective, constantly asking, like, where can I make the biggest change for the most number of people and I think economics and just thinking about how we can apply that to public health and kind of changing it at even a much higher level makes total sense in the way that you’re describing how you went from wanting to pursue pre med into public health. And, yeah, so I wasn’t expecting it. But kind of just thinking about what you said, it makes total sense as to you choosing that as your next step.

Neal 23:23
Yeah. Yeah. And I think you saying what you just said, I, another piece I have to offer is just, I mean, public health is so systems oriented, systems oriented, systems thinking, and I think sometimes being in that field, and being at that high level, it’s hard to identify, like, what does that mean? What- How does that translate into the real world at the ground level? Or what problem am I actually working on? And who is it affecting? I think human- humanizing the issues by engaging in said experiences. So we know, it’s so interdisciplinary public health. So you know, there’s components of education, if you’re passionate about that intersection, like, go get some, like, education experience, systems, you know, volunteer at the local food bank.

Sujani 24:10
Yeah.

Neal 24:10
See how these systems are, identify what these systems are doing. And then there’s something really sparks in you then go learn about that system in public health and all the intricacies complexities and issues with it. So yeah, I completely agree.

Sujani 24:27
That’s great advice. It’s almost like you know, experience the system that you want to change and work in it, so that you can use a public health lens to kind of change it.

Neal 24:37
Exactly.

Sujani 24:38
That’s awesome. Yeah. And then you’re currently at Yale, I think finishing up your first year, and you know, going to be graduating, I suppose. 2023. Is that- Is that right?

Neal 24:51
Yeah, that’s right. ’23.

Sujani 24:52
Yeah, one of the things I’ve been asking my guests to wrap things up is, you know, PH SPOT, we’re on a mission to really I help people build their dream public health careers. And when you hear the word like my dream public health career, what kind of comes to mind? Where do you see your career being built, I guess, out there in the world with all the experiences and the education that you have?

Neal 25:15
That is a great question. And I would say it’s a work in progress.

Sujani 25:20
Yeah.

Neal 25:21
But more recently, know, and reflecting on my first year, and seeing where kind of like, basically the state of affairs in public health just in our country, and like, what issues are going on?

Sujani 25:34
Yeah.

Neal 25:34
I’m very often seeing communication gaps, information gaps.

Sujani 25:41
Yeah.

Neal 25:42
And a lot of divisiveness and politicization of, you know, public health issues or crises. So you know, whether that was COVID, or the pandemic, is about gun violence, a lot of people have a lot of different opinions on it. I am very interested in this idea of fact, or causality. And how can we say that, does this policy or does this change in policy truly affect this change? Or is it something else, and I think, as a health policy person moving forward, I think it’s going to be a huge issue with just like, getting people on board with similar policies, or to find out this is on a policy and moving it forward. The more I think about it, the the more difficult it becomes to kind of address it. And so I guess, to finally answer your question, my dream would be to essentially address these gaps, these information gaps and raise awareness on public health initiatives or public health issues or even policies, where it is easily digestible of, you know, we evaluated this policy, this is what people thought it would do. This is what it actually does. You know, obviously, there’s going to be, you know, intricacies and errors and all that kind of stuff. But to bring awareness to that, and I guess, into the modern age of not so much academically focused or academia focused and not research papers focused, but digestible in the sense of this is the everyday average person, wouldn’t they like to look at, you know, it’s visually appealing. It’s graphics oriented, etc. And so how can we make something look nice and appealing, but also present, you know, the information at hand of, hey, this policy, or this aspect, or this is what gun control would do. This policy and gun control, this is what it would do, it would reduce, hopefully, gun violence by this degree. And also at the same time, and it does not actually truly limit, you know, the idea of having a gun. So, yeah, I don’t know if that’s super clear. But my dream would be to address those gaps in an effective and efficient way. So that way, people become more aware of the issues in public health, but also are truly educated on like, not the politics of these issues. But the facts. I think we’re gearing up to become even more divisive, as a country, to be honest. And now, each of these issues is going to be even harder to contest harder to push forward. And I worry that because facts often get misconstrued, etc, that we lose sight of what this actually translates to-

Sujani 28:33
Yeah.

Neal 28:34
in our lives of like, this could translate to just two deaths.

Sujani 28:37
Yeah.

Neal 28:38
So let’s make sure that people have the right facts. So that way, those information gaps can be filled with bridges and conversation rather than solely dividing each other based off of, you know, differences of opinion. So that’s my dream.

Sujani 28:53
Best wishes on that and can’t wait to hear how that dream unfolds and where you’re going to be working and making these dreams come true. And, yeah, communication of health information is another favorite topic of mine. So I’m sure we can have more discussions specifically on that once you kind of figure it out yourself and come and share it with our listeners. And just want to say thanks, Neal, I think today’s conversation was not only super valuable and inspirational, I think for our listeners, but I think personally, I was also inspired hearing your story.

Neal 29:29
Yeah, no, thank you. Thank you. I appreciate you. I appreciate you know, PH SPOT for just having the platform for me to kind of speak on and kind of share my story. And, you know, any listeners out there if you want to connect or just talk more like, let me know.

Sujani 29:44
Absolutely. Well, we’ll include your information and yeah, best wishes and I know we’ll hear from you again. I think I’m gonna cue you up in a couple maybe months or years and see where you’re at.

Neal 29:56
Definitely.

Sujani 29:58
Hey there, I hope you enjoyed that episode. And, as always, if you want to get the links and information mentioned in today’s episode, you can head over to pHspot.org/podcast. And we will have everything there for you. And one more thing before you go, have you been looking for any of these three things? Number one, guidance to establish a clear path towards your dream public health career. Two, mindset and resources to help you continuously progress in your career, and three, complete confidence to take control of your career to ensure long term job satisfaction and employment. If you answered yes, then you have to check out our Career Program, it’s an intensive hands on training program for early public health professionals, including recent graduates and students. We help you take the uncertainty and overwhelm out of building your public health career through this program. And so you can find out more about the program and join the waitlist for the next cohort at pHspot.org/program. And until next time, thank you so much for tuning into this podcast and for the invaluable work that you do for this world.

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PH SPOTlight: Public health career stories, inspiration, and guidance from current-day public health heroes

On the show, Sujani sits down with public health heroes of our time to share career stories, inspiration, and guidance for building public health careers. From time to time, she also has conversations with friends of public health – individuals who are not public health professionals, but their advice and guidance are equally important.

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