From the Dean: Educating the Public Health Workforce

From the Dean: Educating the Public Health Workforce

A fundamental mission of a school of public health is to train the leaders of the field, and how well we do that job determines whether, in fact, we are doing our job, and whether the best and the brightest will continue to come to the University of Michigan to seek their leadership training. But candidly, leadership training likely is not the most challenging issue in public health education. In 2002 an Institute of Medicine study reported that 80 percent of the nation’s public health workforce has no formal training in public health. Combined with the aging of that workforce, the field of public health confronts a serious dilemma: how to attract, and train, a new generation of workers—not just leaders—who will be prepared to deal with the varied and complex challenges of the 21st century.

While at first blush it might seem obvious that SPHs should have the responsibility for educating the public health workforce, the problems of doing so emerge clearly upon some modest reflection. First and foremost, the number of people in that workforce is large—an estimated 450,000+ nationwide. The traditional capacity of accredited public health schools and programs falls far short of what would be needed to train so many workers. Second, training the frontline workers of public health would require a different focus and method, one that might distract SPHs from their core mission of leadership training. Third, and equally important, at present most public health workers labor in jobs for which the level of pay, and of professional respect, falls far short of that which would be necessary to attract a cadre of well-educated professionals.

What can SPHs do to improve the situation? What is UM SPH doing, and what will it do in the future?

Part of the answer to the first question may lie in an expansion of undergraduate educational opportunities. Some SPHs offer an undergraduate major; still others, while not offering majors, provide undergraduates with a limited number of public health courses. UM SPH falls into this last category, and we are contemplating expanding our menu of undergraduate course offerings.

New technology provides a number of opportunities. Most notably, distance-education courses give busy workers the flexibility to study at their own pace and in their own place. In 1972, UM SPH pioneered a novel educational format to serve the needs of working students, introducing the On Job/On Campus program, or OJOC, for mid-career professionals. Next year we’ll extend that legacy of innovation by offering a new Certificate in the Foundations of Public Health (CFPH), which will make available, in a fully online format, the core introductory courses in all five of our departments. Enrolled CFPH students will not be required to travel to Ann Arbor and will be connected by a variety of distance-education technologies with our school’s excellent educational resources. Those successfully completing the program and satisfying our regular admission requirements will be eligible to apply for our regular master’s programs, with their certificate satisfying the school’s core requirements.

Although this new certificate will represent a brand-new endeavor for UM SPH, it is far from our first attempt to serve the educational needs of the public health practice community. For several years now, the school’s Office of Public Health Practice has offered multiple educational opportunities for practitioners in governmental and community-based public health, using a variety of technology-based and traditional modalities. These have included on-site trainings across the state and at national conferences, online mentored and self-paced courses, live and archived webcasts, CD-ROMs, and interactive television. This past year, the office presented nearly 30 continuing education courses that reached an audience of over 5,000 professionals.

In particular, the office has increased its use of webcasting technologies to allow hundreds of public health professionals around the country and indeed the world to participate in symposia and other courses developed by the office, asking questions, from afar, in real time. Last year these offerings included Human Health and Animal Disease: An Epidemiologic Collision? and Mental Health Implications of Public Health Emergencies. Collectively, hundreds of people watched live course presentations in the past year on their computer screens or in training rooms.

While some novel programs are offered wholly online, as will be our new certificate, the educational enterprise is increasingly finding that mixed models —combinations of online and on-campus classes—often seem to work well. The Executive Master’s OJOC program in the Department of Health Management and Policy currently offers such a combination, which permits students to come to campus every other month for an intensive four-day weekend set of classes. Prior to introduction of the online courses, students had to travel to campus every month. Students in this program can complete their degree in 22 months. As is the case with our regular on-campus programs, this OJOC program serves to develop leaders in the field of public health, rather than the “everyday” practitioner. But it may presage future methods of reaching members of the basic public health workforce.

In a globalized world, the job of training the public health workforce does not stop at our shores. We hope that our certificate program will enroll public health workers from around the world. Associate Dean for Practice Matthew Boulton recently traveled to China, where he signed a Memorandum of Understanding for the exchange of students and scholars with the Chinese Centers for Disease Control. Over the past few months, we have been approached by two educational institutions in India about assisting them in creating public health training institutes to develop a professional public health workforce. And, as you will read in this issue of the magazine, Professor Amr Soliman is leading an international training program in cancer epidemiology. All of these efforts will rely, in varying degrees, on distance-learning technologies.

During a casual conversation this spring, as we were walking across campus, the school’s technology guru, Professor David Mendez, assured me that one day in the not overly distant future, colleagues thousands of miles apart will be able to share a conversation that will feel precisely the same as ours did at that very moment, walking side-by-side. The potential that virtual experiences will so closely mimic the real world (as we know it today) opens remarkable opportunities in education and in nearly every other important human endeavor. Will those opportunities finally help us to find a solution to the chronic problem of an undereducated public health workforce?

Send correspondence about this or any Findings article to the editor at sph.findings@umich.edu. You will be contacted if your letter is considered for publication.

-Kenneth E. Warner