Inaugural event seeks to connect the public with public health concerns and training opportunities
What is the best way to prevent food borne illness? How effective is hospice care? What factors influence hookah use in college students? And, is raw milk safe?
These are the type of questions that public health scientists work to answer each day. Unlike other health professionals, their focus is on prevention, rather than treatment of conditions.
As the national healthcare climate begins to shift from a reactive to proactive focus – working to reduce costs and improve outcomes for those with chronic diseases through behavior management and education – the field of public health is exploding.
As Penn State Hershey’s new Master of Public Health (MPH) program celebrated the recent graduation of its second cohort of students this spring, it organized a Public Health Day Symposium at the Civil War Museum in Harrisburg to bring together nearly 100 students, faculty, government employees, policy makers and community public health practitioners.
Farrah Kauffman, deputy director of the program, said the department organized the inaugural event “to expose students to professionals in the field, and to provide them with a chance to hear about the latest and greatest of what is happening now — as well as some networking opportunities.”
Vernon Chinchilli, chair of the Department of Public Health Sciences at Penn State Hershey, said the MPH program, which began in 2011, expects to become fully accredited this June. The two-year, full-time program, designed for working professionals with evening classes, will be joined by a doctorate program, possibly as soon as fall 2015.
“Public health is a big problem, and there is a need throughout the nation for more advanced training,” he said. “Especially with the state government being right here in central Pennsylvania, it would be beneficial to train people here.”
Work to improve obesity and poverty rates, chronic disease management, and health literacy are important because the results mean healthier citizens and more savings. “The United States continues to spend the most money of any developed country on healthcare and we are not reaping the benefits of it,” he said. “We need to spend smarter.”
“Despite efforts to address foodborne diseases, we are not making as much progress as we would like,” he said. Advanced molecular detection and regulation of the use of antibiotics in farm animals are some of the measures the FDA is proposing to combat the problem of meat contamination and foodborne diseases.
Students and public health professionals presented posters outlining their research on everything from mercury levels in fish and off-label prescribing of drugs to mental health screenings for refugees and legalization of living organ donation markets. Deborah Davis, from Penn State Hershey’s Office of Diversity, spoke about the importance of diversity in public health, and a recent graduate, Obsitu Kelifa, discussed integration of public health and primary care.
Amanda Reiff,who will graduate with the MPH in August, said she was drawn to the field because “there is so much you can do with public health — so many opportunities.”
Reiff’s background and interests are in veterinary science, so she wants to specialize in zoonotic diseases such as rabies, Lyme disease and West Nile Virus, as well as food safety. She said the event was a great way to promote the new public health program and showcase student research and work.
“We are connecting with those who are actively working in public health, so we can better apply what we’re doing to improve the public health in the community,” she said. “Central Pennsylvania lacks a lot of medical facility access – a lot of it is rural and the Amish community is here, so it’s important that we have this public health program here.”
Marcela Myers, director of practice transformation and innovation for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, said the state government is lucky to have such a program locally.
“We are always looking to maintain different partnerships with departments of public health,” she said. “We thrive on those because public-private partnerships are a way to really move along a lot of concepts. We want to provide everyone with the resources to prevent another generation of super utilizers (of health care).”
Kauffman said the partnership includes internships for students, guest lecturers, and having members of the state Department of Health serve on the program’s community advisory board.
Pleased with how the first symposium went, Kauffman said she hopes to make it an annual event. “I think with the changes in healthcare and healthcare reform, people are interested in what is going to happen next.”