Undergraduate Public Health Education Expands Nationwide

By Currie, Donya | The Nation's Health, October 2012 | Go to article overview

Undergraduate Public Health Education Expands Nationwide


Currie, Donya, The Nation's Health


AT WORCESTER Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, all first-year students participate in a "great problems" seminar focusing on issues such as food sustainability, the world's water supply or chronic disease. The early public health exposure means a number of those students end up doing public health work in their junior and senior years.

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At Kapi'olani Community College in Hawaii, students choose from the service learning "pathways" of health, the environment and elder care as part of their general education curriculum. A recent service project matched Native Hawaiian students with native elders to work on health literacy.

"Their curriculum is just shot through with public health," Susan Albertine, PhD, vice president at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, told The Nation's Health. "It's a beautiful thing."

The movement to incorporate public health into all undergraduate students' education, while still relatively new, has gained momentum in the past few years. Leaders in the effort are working to quantify exactly how many schools now offer either introductory public health courses to undergraduates, a public health minor or a public health major.

"What I can tell you for sure is that the programs are proliferating in the liberal arts college sector and at comprehensive universities," said Albertine, who is on the planning committee for the upcoming Undergraduate Education for Public Health Summit. "It's harder to track what's going on in the general education area in relation to public health, but that, too, is proliferating, and it's very exciting."

The push to add at least some public health presence to the studies of all college students began after the Institute of Medicine's 2003 "Who Will Keep the Public Healthy?" report recommended all undergraduate students have access to public health courses.

"That really kicked things off," Richard Riegelman, MD, PhD, MPH, professor and founding dean of the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, told The Nation's Health. "I always like to say when people read that report, they thought 'all' was a typo. It wasn't in the cards in 2003."

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Yet a broad collaboration of public health organizations as well as arts and sciences organizations, particularly the Association of American Colleges and Universities, developed an "educated citizen in public health" initiative. Following a 2006 Consensus Conference on Undergraduate Public Health Education, the initiative has been the basis of many of the undergraduate public health education efforts nationwide, Riegelman said.

"I think what's been impressive is the degree of collaboration across public health and among arts and sciences," he said.

Riegelman estimated about 300 higher education institutions now offer undergraduate public health minors and majors, with many more schools giving students the opportunity to take some public health courses as part of their general studies.

Three positive aspects of the movement, Riegelman said, are an increased interest in public health education, a better understanding of public health among the public and also an understanding of public health by health professionals such as doctors and nurse,

"Ten years ago, the public really didn't understand what public health was in very deep ways," Riegelman said. "Now that problem hasn't gone away. But we think the leverage point is to get to the college audience. They are at the right stage of life, and they are receptive."

In August, the Association of Schools of Public Health released a list of recommended critical components of an undergraduate major in public health. For example, students not only should be able to communicate both orally and in written form through a variety of media to diverse audiences, but they also should be able to locate, use, evaluate and synthesize information. …

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