Ask Dr. Paul Brandt-Rauf, Dean of the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) School of Public Health, what has changed within the sphere of public health education, and you’re likely to get a quick reply.
“What hasn’t changed?” Brandt-Rauf asks.
Actually, he does point to a few constants. The first is that most people who go into public health are, and always have been, motivated by the desire to give back. The second is they know they’re not going to get rich doing it.
“I don’t think anyone has ever chosen a career in public health for the money,” says Brandt-Rauf, who has been spent nearly 40 years as an educator, 30 at Columbia and the last seven-and-a-half at UIC. “The difference is that today’s young students are a lot more realistic about what can be done and what has to be done. They see a clear path and as a result, they’re a lot more demanding.”
Brandt-Rauf says that attitudinal change has its roots in changes that have taken place in the sector. After a period of high growth in the 1960s, public health experienced another growth spurt in the ’90s as medical schools began to understand the symbiosis between the medicine and public health disciplines. The impact of computing and biostatistics was a prime example.
‘”Suddenly, the medical schools realized they needed public health people if they were to optimize their programs,” he says. “The number of schools offering degrees in public health went up dramatically, and so did public health funding. That meant opportunities for more students and ultimately, more jobs.” Dr. Harrison C. Spencer is President and CEO of the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH). He agrees that today’s changes in public health education begin with a fundamental
change in the student profile.
“Now even undergraduates have a world view,” says Spencer. “They communicate well. They demand change. They’re more focused on their jobs and careers than in the past-very much anchored in what they’re going to do after their education.”
Spencer says the variety of jobs in the realm of public health today is unlike ever before-jobs from local, state, or federal governments, academia, health systems, non-profits, and industry. That means applications and enrollment at schools of public health are up, but perhaps still not enough to meet global demand.
Brandt-Rauf points to an interesting dynamic facing public health education: Those same educators who began their careers in the ’60s are now approaching retirement. Who’s going to assume the mantle of educating these future public health professionals?
“What we’re seeing now is that demographic bulge,” says Brandt-Rauf. “The experienced faculty are aging out at the same time that demand is rising for people in practice. These are parallel needs that we have to adapt to and address.” Brandt and Spencer point to changes in curricula as the most obvious adaptation. Brandt says that back in the day, faculty tended to teach with a broad theoretical brush, as if every student were training to become a future faculty member. Today, most curricula, including the one at UIC, have been adapted to empower graduates with more practical skills and competencies. At the same time, that practicality has to be accented with a more firm understanding of the integration of the disciplines within public health. “The curricula today are less cookie cutter,” agrees Spencer. “Today’s Master of Public Health degree has become more specialized. The core curriculum takes up less. Everyone has to have hands-on training and practical experience because that’s what the jobs demand.”
Another clear change is the role of technology in education, a change that’s not limited to public health. From in-class innovations such as student response devices to more fundamental changes like the availability of class resources and even degrees online, technology has opened up new avenues to both students and educators. Being able to absorb a lecture before going to class, for example, gives students more time for discussion and interaction during class time.
“Technology is changing everything in and outside the classroom,” Spencer says, “and it’s not slowing down. Today we can communicate in real time with anyone in the world, even in the most poverty-stricken areas. We have access to huge amounts of data where we can see who’s searching for what on Google and know where influenza might be breaking out. The possibilities are innumerable.”
A wealth of possibilities is good news for students and educators alike. Let’s hope we can work together to make the most of each one.
FRAMING THE FUTURE FOR PHL
Dr. Donna J. Petersen ScD, MHS, CPH, is the Dean of the College of Public Health at the University of South Florida. Since 2011, she has also served as the Chair of the Education Committee for the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH). When she assumed chairmanship, the Committee’s first order of business was to update its work plan.
“At the time, there was a lot going on at once,” Petersen recalls. “The needs within Public Health education had evolved quite a bit over time, and ASPPH was taking a hard look at ways to improve the quality of education for our graduates at all levels – the undergrad, the Masters of Public Health (MPH) programs, and the doctorate programs.”
Petersen says the committee launched into the updating process using its most recent work plan as the basis, but it kept hitting stumbling blocks relating to an outdated model on which curricula were based. Traditionally, the core curricula for MPH degrees were spread across the five disciplines of public health: behavioral science/health education, biostatistics, environmental health, epidemiology, and health services administration. Yet not unlike education in other sectors, over time those disciplines had become victims of siloization. Coursework and practicum often lacked the integrated aspect of these disciplines in a real world setting.
It was at one of her early meetings when Petersen says Barbara Rimer, DrPH, a committee member and Dean of the Gillings School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, came up with an excellent idea. 2015 would mark the 100th anniversary of the landmark Welch-Rose Report, the document that spelled out the need for and led to the establishment of schools of public health as a necessary complement to schools of medicine. Why not, proposed Rimer, take an empty room approach to developing a new work plan and use the Welch-Rose centennial as a target to introduce new curricula models that align with current needs.
Petersen says it was a eureka moment for the entire committee, which supported the idea right away. Before long, Petersen and her team had established a Task Force called “Framing the Future: The Second 100 Years of Education in Public Health.” Petersen herself served as the Chair.
“The change was already happening,” Petersen says. “The committee was just a catalyst to help us capture the moment and really elevate the conversation across a wide array of people toward recommendations that were grounded and informed. They were more than willing to participate.”
The Education Committee went on to enlist the help of people from more than 50 stakeholder groups, and from those develop “expert panels” that would submit curricula recommendations through individual reports on six different areas:
- Undergraduate Education
- Population Health Across All Professions
- Community Colleges and Public Health
- Governmental Public Health Workforce Development
Reports from each expert panel were submitted as they were completed over the three years of the task force. Once approved by the ASPPH Board, they were released for accredited schools and programs to consider and implement. Important effects of the approach, which Petersen began putting in place at USF, became evident right away.
“We’re now in the second year of piloting an integrated program for our MPH students,” Petersen says. “The first group achieved a 100% pass rate on the National Certification Exam.”
Petersen says that in years past, students might do well on one part of the exam or another depending on where they went to school and what their emphasis was. It’s her hope that Framing the Future provides guidance that schools across the U.S. can use to produce students that are not only well rounded and well versed in the core knowledge and skill areas, but that also have the practical experience as to how all aspects of public health interact in their chosen field of specialization.