How Can Schools of Public Health Provide Surge Capacity?

by Jay Maddock, PhD

The Dean’s Perspective focuses on issues pertinent to the relationship between academic public health and the practice community.

Jay E. Maddock, PhD, FAAHB

Over the last month, we have witnessed catastrophic hurricane landfalls in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. Here in College Station, Texas, we waited out three feet of rain from Hurricane Harvey while we watched as our nearest city, Houston, experienced an unprecedented flood. As our friends and neighbors joined the makeshift Texas Navy to help rescue fellow Texans trying to escape the flood waters, our school was quickly preparing for post-disaster response.

Dr. Jennifer Horney, Associate Professor and interim head of our Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, along with the newly funded Texas A&M Superfund Research Center, was mobilizing students to collect soil and water samples from environmental justice neighborhoods situated in industrial areas near the Houston Ship Channel. Results from these samples will help inform community members about risks in the area and whether or not it is safe to move back into their homes. The students participating in these efforts are part of EpiAssist, a service-learning program developed by Dr. Horney as part of her Methods in Field Epidemiology class.

EpiAssist provides training and opportunities for students to work with local and state health departments on real world issues. Health departments receive surge capacity in times of disasters and other public health emergencies while students gain valuable work experience. Since its establishment in 2015, students have provided over 3,300 hours of volunteer service to local and state health departments in Texas. Hurricane Harvey has got me thinking about the need for more schools to be able to respond to public health emergencies across the country. While there are other public health student-volunteer opportunities at the University of North Carolina, Emory, and the University of Texas Health Science Center, they are by no means widespread.

I would like to challenge my fellow deans to start EpiAssist-like programs at every school of public health in the country. There are currently 59 US based accredited schools of public health in 33 states, DC, and Puerto Rico. Only four states do not have either an accredited school or an accredited program. All four are small states, accounting for about 3 million people or less than 1% of the US population. So if schools and programs developed initiatives like this, we could help protect the health and lives of more than 99% of Americans. I would also challenge us to think beyond epidemiology to fields like health promotion, environmental health, and health policy, all of which could benefit from providing more service-learning opportunities in local health departments. With the growth of undergraduate programs, we really are in an excellent position to address major surge capacity needs in our states.

EpiAssist and programs like it help counter the workforce shortages that many of our local health departments suffer from along with providing high-impact, real-world learning experiences for our students. This is exactly what schools of public health should be doing, and it’s time to make it the standard. Let’s do it!

Note to university presidents in Delaware, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming – it’s time to develop a public health program in your states.

Jay E. Maddock, PhD is the Dean of the School of Public Health at Texas A&M University. He is internationally recognized for his research in social ecological approaches to increasing physical activity. He has served as principal investigator on over $18 million in extramural funding and authored over 100 scientific articles. [Full Bio]

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