Public health program expands

| Contributing Reporter

Schools, departments and faculty spanning Washignton University are uniting to create a cohesive public health program, bringing master’s degrees in the business school, medical school and the Brown School of Social Work, as well as an undergraduate minor, under the coordinating influence of the newly formed Institute of Public Health.

The University’s initiative to expand public health programs, which began several years ago, has culminated in an undergraduate minor, which graduated its first class last spring; a master’s degree in public health, which enrolled its first class this year; and the Institute for Public Health, which began operation last September.

Strategic planning

Plans for the implementation of the public health department were drawn up at the University four years ago, when school representatives gathered to discuss where they wanted to be in 20 years. Many of the schools, particularly the social work school and the medical school, included elements of public health in their plans.

Even before the creation of the institute or master’s degree, the campus had already seen a great deal of public health research, with 12 research centers involved in related research.

“There is public health all over the place, frankly. [The University was] really pretty strong already in public health,” said Timothy McBride, associate dean of public health at the Brown School.

While outcroppings of public health were scattered around campus, leaders on campus saw the lack of an overarching structure as a problem.

“Washington University has been pretty distinctive among our peers in not having a major public health emphasis,” said Edward Lawlor, director of the Institute for Public Health. “In some ways, I think this was kind of a glaring omission in the portfolio of programs we have.”

Starting from scratch

Creating a new public health program gave the University an opportunity to implement an unprecedented vision. Under Chancellor Mark Wrighton’s leadership, University trustees, deans and faculty weighed the pros and cons of various public-health education models.

“This is a really special opportunity just from a university perspective because you get to invent your public health structure in 2009,” Lawlor said.

The University is now implementing what it calls an “independent bubbles” structure for public health, which consists of master’s degrees scattered throughout various schools—a Master of Public Health in the social work school, several master’s degrees in the medical school, and an MBA concentration in the business of health care—as well as the undergraduate minor in Arts & Sciences.

The actions of the institute are therefore varied, broken up into “work groups” with different agendas. At the institute’s core, however, is the concept of a “trans-disciplinary” approach to public health.

“I think the more interesting challenge for us is to do things that are innovative and distinctive to our university in the field of public health,” Lawlor said.

Trans-disciplinary learning

McBride and Bradley Stoner, director of the public health minor, also see their respective programs—the master’s in Public Health through the social work school and the undergraduate minor in public health—as standouts against a backdrop of growing public health education.

While most graduate public health programs are centered around five core areas, the social work school curriculum has come to view public health through a kaleidoscope of multiple disciplines.

“What students do is they take a public health issue, like obesity or tobacco, and they’ll attack it from beginning to end, from problem solution, using all sorts of disciplinary tools,” McBride said. “We think this is the future of public health, and it already is the recommended way of doing research, but we believe we’re the only curricular program that’s actually teaching students how to do this.”

Stoner also sees the public health minor in Arts & Sciences as ahead of the curve. “When we looked around, we realized we were really ahead of most other places. There are other places that are interested in this, but they’re asking questions that we asked eight or 10 years ago,” he said.

Looking forward

As both the graduate and undergraduate programs take off, plans for the future include a doctorate in population health sciences through the medical school, a degree through the engineering school in environmental health, and a potential undergraduate major.

The undergraduate minor and the MPH program are also expected to grow. The master’s program, which enrolled its first class this year, has 44 students now and expects eventually to have about 150.

The size of the undergraduate minor is in flux, with about 50 declared minors and more enrolled in classes. Based on the number of applications to the master’s program this year, the next class could be bigger than 150 students.

But the expansion of both programs is limited by the current economic climate.

“That might compromise our quality, and we’d need more space and more faculty,” McBride said.

Also on the table is a program uniting the undergraduate minor and the social work school master’s degree in which students would have the ability to obtain both degrees in five years rather than six.

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