Teaching Public Health Practice for Non-Practitioners

by Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS, FACSM

The Scholarship of Public Health addresses topics relevant to scientific publishing, dissemination of evidence and best practices, and the education of current and future professionals. This column presents some considerations and best practices for finding time to produce scholarship in the form of a manuscript or presentation.

Most masters of public health (MPH) graduates who remain in public health will become practitioners rather than researchers. Most tenure-track faculty are hired and retained for their research acumen, especially those in medical schools and schools of public health. As such, one of the conundrums that faces faculty members in public health programs is how to best prepare future public health practitioners for careers if they’ve never been practitioners themselves. This was a challenge I faced personally when I joined the faculty of the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University in 2006 as we started a new department and a MPH program. At the time, I had a history of working for community-based organizations in college, which included a very brief stint at a local American Red Cross branch, but I had no real experience in public health practice. Fortunately, I had actively engaged with practitioners in my research and service work throughout my (at the time) short career, so I had an appreciation for the skills they utilized and, most importantly, prized in their employees. I was even more fortunate to have a department chair (Lloyd Novick), who had spent his distinguished career as a practitioner. His guidance in establishing the department and curriculum was invaluable, but the teaching conundrum still fell to me to solve. What I learned during my time tackling that challenge is twofold: 1) you cannot run away from your deficiency and just teach what you know if you’re going to produce graduates who are prepared for the practice world, and 2) you cannot do it alone (ie, it takes a team).

It can often be daunting to teach topics that you don’t have direct experience conducting. Unfortunately, the broad array of skills and competencies a public health graduate student must master places faculty in this position regularly. Fortunately, there are a number of strategies available to faculty to address their shortcomings, which can enhance the student experience and reduce stress on the faculty member. One strategy is most obvious; bring in guest speakers. This strategy works well for those faculty who do community-engaged work that can foster a large professional network. It may be more challenging for those faculty who don’t work in the community. Another downside can be that scheduling is challenging, and topical expertise can be relatively narrow. For example, I’ve spent much of my career conducting epidemiological or intervention work for the promotion of physical activity and healthy eating. As such, most of my professional contacts aren’t going to be able to speak on communicable disease, public health administration, injury prevention, or most other topics outside of those that are the focus of my work. As such, a more systematic approach might be preferable.

The Academic Health Department might provide a better solution for bringing practitioners and their expertise into the classroom. An Academic Health Department is a concept similar to the teaching hospital and is based on a formal agreement between a local health department and an academic institution promoted by the Public Health Foundation via the Council on Linkages Between Academia and Public Health Practice. One relevant feature is the joint appointment of faculty from the health department (jointly funded) who can team-teach courses or who can make scheduled, regular appearances in courses as part of a systematic exposure of students to topics and experts that can enrich the educational experience. An addition benefit can be the formal involvement of faculty in health department activities that can provide the practical experience that traditional academic faculty often lack. Other involvement by health department-affiliated faculty can be review of syllabi and academic programs and assessments to ensure that students are being prepared in ways that reflect the workforce needs and expectations. This joint participation in the preparation of future practitioners can solve the faculty conundrum and improve the quality of education and training for the next generation of public health practitioners. I would encourage anyone who works in an academic public health program to review the core concepts of the Academic Health Department, and consider if your program is ready and able to form a beneficial partnership that can benefit faculty, students, and practitioners alike.

Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS, FACSM, is the Associate Editor of the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice and an Associate Professor in the Department of Implementation Science of the Wake Forest School of Medicine at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC, USA. Follow him at Twitter and Instagram. [Full Bio]

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