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Public Health Service as a career

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2012 - Winter


The U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps (USPHS), one of the seven uniformed services, offers an alternative experience for physicians seeking a military service career [“Medicine and the military,” Yale Medicine, Spring 2011]. Similar to those in the military, physicians in the USPHS are commissioned officers who have the same basic responsibilities and benefits. The head of the USPHS is the U.S. Surgeon General. Physicians in the USPHS practice preventive/population medicine at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); research medicine at the National Institutes of Health; clinical medicine with the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Indian Health Service; and military medicine with the U.S. Coast Guard.

My career was with the CDC and began with an assignment to the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) program, which is a two-year learn-on-the-job experience for physicians and other doctoral-level health professionals. As an EIS officer, I learned the skills needed to carry out applied epidemiology and population medicine through community-based experiences. These included investigations of cholera in Bahrain and in the Maldive Islands; shigellosis in the Marshall Islands; suspected botulism in Peru; and norovirus on a cruise ship—plus several domestic investigations, including the first outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease. These experiences prepared me for subsequent assignments that included a three-month tour with the World Health Organization in Geneva, followed by work as a state epidemiologist in the Florida State Health Department; deputy program director at CDC (which included leading a bioterrorism response team at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games); and director of the Sexually Transmitted Disease Program in San Diego, Calif. I retired from the USPHS in 2004 after 30 years of service.

I encourage medical school students interested in a career as a commissioned officer in any of the uniformed services to discuss opportunities with current and former commissioned officers and to look for such introductory opportunities as the CDC’s senior medical students elective programs. As I reflect on my career with the USPHS, I realize how fortunate I was to have had so many professionally rewarding experiences, worldwide travel, and an opportunity to provide services to those in need.

Robert A. Gunn, M.D. ’66, M.P.H.
Captain, U.S. Public Health Service (retired)
La Jolla, Calif.