By Kieran Dahl
The coronavirus pandemic underscored the urgent need for public health workers—people whose jobs are focused not on treatment, like doctors and nurses, but on the prevention of illness and injury in the first place.
Heather Steiness, associate dean of the College of Health Professions at University of Phoenix, calls the pandemic a "tremendous learning opportunity for public health. It’s an amazing case study that we can use in the classroom."
She regularly evaluates the healthcare curriculum to ensure that it’s both timely and relatable. "We want our students to be able to walk the walk and talk the talk in relevant terms for the workplace that they're going into," she says. "Not the one that existed three, five years ago."
The future of public health
The future of public health, she says, will be more acutely focused on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). The pandemic and the racial unrest of the past year have brought to light healthcare’s stark systemic problems. At their core, these are issues of access (to healthcare and education) and the social determinants of health (the conditions in which people live—and work, eat, play, sleep, etc.—that affect their health).
"Public health has always been pretty attuned to social justice issues," Steiness says, "but there’s always room for growth. I think public health will become even more attuned to the different voices out there and to making sure that all populations are being reached."
Britt Johnston and LeNisha Watson are students of the Master of Public Health (MPH) program at University of Phoenix. Both want to analyze and address society’s problems at their core, turn knowledge into action and help their communities. "Instead of just learning about certain populations"—as she did in her social work classes—"I’m learning how to help them," Johnston says.
"We talk a lot in our classes about knowing the constituents of the communities we serve," Johnston says. "You don’t know what changes need to be implemented if you don’t know their struggles and aren’t actively participating in the community."
"People often think that if you want to help your community, you have to be a clinician, a doctor, or a nurse," says Jamila Jones, who works in health communications at a national public health agency and specializes in emergency preparedness and high-priority topics. "But there’s this whole other career path—the public health path—that’s so needed. And we see that now with the COVID-19 outbreak."
A myriad of opportunities
"The cool thing about public health is that there are so many layers, so many different careers," Jones says. You don’t need to be a data whiz or a chemistry prodigy to excel in it. Jones herself went to school to become a pharmacist but switched careers after realizing that her innate "desire to investigate" was "probably the most valuable attribute" in the public health field.
"This is a great time to get into public health," she says. "It’s definitely a field that could use some new blood."
Like Jones, Johnston intended to become a pharmacist. However, she found her calling in public health. The industry combined her interest in "making a difference" with her previous coursework in science and social work. Watson, meanwhile, had been working in case management with various populations, from veterans to domestic abuse victims, when she realized that public health was an overarching umbrella.
"The issues we see daily—homelessness, substance abuse, mental health problems—are interconnected, and they’re all public health issues," Watson says.
UOPX's MPH program
Meanwhile, Program Chair Cindy Mackay-Neorr addresses a gap she sees in public health education — "the community voice and being able to partner with community stakeholders" — through the University of Phoenix MPH program.
The program is uniquely focused on community health leadership. Students learn leadership strategies and to assess–not assume– the needs of different populations with a mindset of, as Mackay-Neorr puts it, "I want to talk to you. I want to learn what your experience is. I want to really benefit your community. Please tell me how I can do that."
She says it starts with evaluating a population’s health, determining its needs, then planning, implementing and continuously reassessing health programs.
Later this year, students in the MPH program will spend two six-week periods participating in a required field experience. The experience comprises two courses; in the first six weeks, they will develop a proposal, and in the second, they will implement the plan, analyze the outcome and present the results.
"They’ll go through that community health planning process to essentially practice what they’ve learned in the program," Mackay-Neorr says, "and make a name for themselves, if you will, in the community prior to their graduation."
COVID-19 a real-world learning experience
At the moment, though, the pandemic is its own fast-paced, hands-on teaching moment.
"Our faculty are literally on the ground in the pandemic and, now, vaccination efforts," Mackay-Neorr says. "So our students are getting real-time information from each of their faculty members as they take the courses as well."
Johnston, who lives in Jackson, Tennessee, plans to work at a local organization like Loving Arms. The organization gives underserved populations support and resources for finding food, shelter and employment. Watson works for WestCare, an emergency-intervention shelter for people with substance abuse disorders. She plans to use the skills she’s gained in the MPH program to pursue new opportunities at her current job.
COVID-19 has placed a spotlight on public health and highlighted many DEI and social justice issues in the process. Regarding this change, Jones says, "So much of this work has been done under the radar for years. But now there’s a foundation to build upon."
That foundation, of course, will be built and refined by people like Johnston and Watson. They are among the skilled, empathetic, community-oriented leaders at the forefront of public health’s bright future.
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