Physical therapist aims for healing on a larger scale with online MPH

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Jean Rinkowski

Online MPH in Population and Health Sciences

A physical therapist by training, Jean Rinkowski has been treating patients for nearly 20 years. Now, she is earning her Master of Public Health (MPH) degree online from the University of Michigan School of Public Health while continuing to work as a physical therapist, and caring for a growing family.

Her journey is more than just a career pivot; it's a plan to make a greater impact. 

Getting to know and support her patients is what she loves about her job, but she began to feel limited in her role. After many years of helping people recover from injuries and surgery, she realized that she was seeing the same problems over and over. Rinkowski believed she could be doing more and that studying population health could help her do that. 

"Working in healthcare, I’ve seen firsthand how social determinants of health can impact health outcomes,” she said. “I found myself wanting to be able to address these issues on a population scale rather than the individual scale that my current profession allows.” 

When your community is healthier, that helps you be healthier.

Rinkowski's interest in public health was sparked by her belief in its potential to enhance the well-being of communities. She believes in the importance of collective health: “Getting everyone healthy is better for all of us. When your community is healthier, that helps you be healthier,” she said. 

It's that philosophy that motivated her decision to pursue a master’s degree in public health.

Physical therapy is public health

Rinkowski’s professional experience has proven to her that physical therapy isn’t just about rehabilitating injuries; it’s a crucial aspect of public health.  

“When people fall, especially older adults, it can lead to serious injuries like hip fractures, hospitalizations, and, sadly, even death,” she said. "Helping people age successfully and maintain their independence is vital for everyone. It reduces healthcare costs, improves quality of life, and allows individuals to remain in their homes with their families.”

In addition to fall prevention, she’s noted several public health priorities receiving more attention across the field of physical therapy, including increasing attention to underserved populations, addressing the opioid epidemic, and improving women’s health.

“Physical therapy is evolving beyond injury rehabilitation. It’s about keeping people healthy and empowering them to live their best lives,” she said.

Studying public health provides her with additional tools to proactively promote health and well-being.

“I want to improve the health of society as a whole through research and advocacy," she said. “I’m not satisfied to simply wait until someone gets hurt to help them. I want to keep people healthy from the start.”

Public health at home

Rinkowski has found the flexibility of the online MPH program to be invaluable. With classes in the evenings and the ability to schedule study time around her busy life, she has been able to pursue her education without sacrificing time with her loved ones.

However, her journey has not been without its challenges. She faced significant complications during childbirth, an experience that reinforced her passion for public health and highlighted the urgent need for policy changes to ensure equitable access to care. 

Before welcoming her youngest child in Spring of 2023, Rinkowski recalled a paper she wrote on disparities in maternal morbidity and mortality for a course on the social determinants of health. 

If I had been in a different hospital, where the team wasn't trained, my outcome could have been tragic.

“It's heartbreaking—what's supposed to be a happy time can be tragic for many people,” she said. “When I had our last baby I ended up hemorrhaging really badly and had to get a blood transfusion. I essentially experienced the things I had just written about, but because I was at a good hospital with a medical team that had trained for that situation, my outcome was  ideal. All I could think was, if I had been in a different hospital, where the team wasn't trained, my outcome could have been tragic.”

For Rinkowski, it’s a moment that underscores the broader issue of healthcare disparities, particularly in maternal health outcomes. 

“I benefited from the policies that our hospital had to address my emergency. But those policies should exist at every hospital,” she said.

She’s grateful that she and her baby went home healthy and happy. 

“Living through that, right after learning so much about it—it brought home just how much we could be doing at the policy level to improve and address maternal health disparities,” she said.

Contributing to public health research 

Throughout her academic journey, Rinkowski has explored public health issues that are deeply connected to her life and work and contribute to projects that have meaningful impact in the lives of others. 

In her second year of the online MPH program, Rinkowski conducted public health research as part of the California Teachers Study (CTS). It became a pivotal part of her journey as a graduate student.

She was initially unsure how she could participate in research being in an online program. Program staff connected her with Dr. James V. Lacey Jr., director of the Division of Health Analytics, and professor in the Department of Computational and Quantitative Medicine at City of Hope who serves as principal investigator for the CTS study. It was Lacey who invited Rinkowski to conduct her own research for the study as part of her required Applied Practice Experience (APEx) project.

Looking at health at the population level makes a difference.

Rinkowski was one of a handful of online MPH students who contributed to CTS research that spanned across a wide range of areas, from COVID-19 to Alzheimer’s disease. 

She was tasked with examining lifestyle factors related to cancer among urban and rural participants of the study. She identified the 10 most common cancers within the study and compared various lifestyle factors and characteristics to find any differences between the urban and rural participants that might warrant further investigation.

It was a thrilling opportunity for Rinkowski, who had been eager to gain research experience through her master’s program.

“I found that there were significant differences between those rural and urban participants with melanoma,” she said. “It was fascinating. What I found went beyond the lifestyle factors you’d typically expect, like UV exposure.”

With guidance from Lacey and her faculty advisor, she worked through challenges, learned new skills, and contributed to cancer research. 

Now, Rinkowski is working on plans to submit a manuscript of her work for publication. 

“I didn’t know what to expect, but I was able to complete hands-on data analysis and original research in an online program,” she said. “Now, I may be able to get it published, and that would be really exciting.”

Rinkowski will complete her degree program in the next year, and said she continues to recognize connections from coursework in her work and life. Being able to put her new skills to use in meaningful ways truly demonstrates the value of what she’s learning, she said. 

“Looking at health at the population level makes a difference,” Rinkowski said. “You see how that view really does benefit people individually too. Population health is important.”