Online Public Health Education Growing in Popularity in U.S

Article excerpt

When Mary Casagrande was teaching seventh-grade students in East Palo Alto, Calif., she always found a way to incorporate her passion for health into the lessons. Eventually that passion led her to become a community health advocate, but she still felt like something was missing.

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The missing piece was the knowledge and skills gained with a master's of public health degree, which she received last summer through San Jose State University's MPH Distance Education Program. Casagrande completed the graduate degree program almost entirely online, save for a few days each year when she was required to visit the San Jose campus. The online program was a perfect fit for Casagrande, who needed a flexible degree program that let her continue working full time.

"When I was growing up, we always had healthy foods and lived in areas with sidewalks," said Casagrande, who is now a projects manager for employee wellness at Kaiser Permanente. "Then as an adult I realized that not everyone has those opportunities. That's why I was so excited to learn more about public health."

Casagrande is one of many students whose interest in public health, coupled with job, family or geographical limitations, led them to pursue their education online. It is a demand that more schools of public health are working to meet. According to Allison Foster, MBA, CAE, deputy executive director of the Association of Schools of Public Health, more than half of schools that are accredited via the Council on Education for Public Health offer some type of online education, from master's and doctoral degrees to public health certificates. Some schools offer a general master's of public health online, while others offer more specialized degrees, such as those in occupational or environ-mental health.

According to the association, public health education is quickly growing in popularity: Overall annual applications to schools of public health have increased from about 20,000 in 2000 to more than 49,000 in 2010.

"I'd say the demand (for online public health education) is increasing due to a general increase in interest for formal public health training," Foster said. "More folks seem to understand what public health is, and we've seen application numbers go up every year. When you graduate from an online program, your diploma looks like everyone else's. Distance learning programs at accredited schools have outcomes that are just as good as their more traditional programs."

At the University of South Florida College of Public Health, enrollment in online public health degree programs has more than doubled since the middle of the last decade. The university was one of the first to offer distancebased public health education. It began in 1993 with satellite-delivered courses to 33 health departments across Florida, said APHA member Deanna Wathington, MD, MPH, associate dean for academic and student affairs at the College of Public Health. Today, the college offers three master's degrees and eight graduate certificates online.

"I think the economy is one of the factors that drives people back to school," Wathington told The Nation's Health. "Also, organizations see value in their employees possessing the degree that goes with their experience."

The school's first master's degree to go fully online was in public health practice, which was specifically designed for working health professionals with a few years of experience. The online program most quickly growing in popularity is the master's in global disaster management and humanitarian relief, Wathington said.

"(The online environment) has a unique dynamic and it's something that instructors have observed and really appreciate," said Sandhya Srinivasan, MPH, MEd, director of the college's Office of Educational Technology and Assessment. "For example, one of our students (who was working at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) was able to give up-to-date information when an instructor didn't have it. …