(Jan. 30, 2003)
East Carolina University is gearing up to begin offering the master of public health degree this fall in hopes of providing a missing piece to the puzzle of improving rural health in eastern North Carolina.
An interdisciplinary group of more than a dozen faculty planned the program. The group, from many departments and schools at ECU, was co-chaired by Drs. Trenton Davis, a professor of environmental health science, safety and technology in the School of Allied Health Sciences
, and Chris Mansfield, director of health services research and development and professor of family medicine.
It is anticipated that about 20 students will be enrolled in the 2003-2004 academic year. Within a few years, the program is expected to admit 27 full-time students and 12 part-time students annually.
The program will be distinctive in the state in several respects. It will be located in the Brody School of Medicine as the Division of Community Health and Preventive Medicine in the Department of Family Medicine
, and it will have as one of its stated purposes the closer integration of public health and medicine.
"Medicine's role in preventive health care can be greatly extended and improved with tools and concepts of public health," said Mansfield, who is serving as interim director of the program. "Medicine usually deals with a problem after it has developed. There are no pills to prevent poor nutrition, obesity, lack of physical fitness, exposure to environmental toxins, injury, child abuse or behaviors that lead to heart disease and stroke. Public health looks upstream to address the conditions that give rise to disease. We need both approaches."
The case for a new approach is compelling. Although physician supply and the quality and scope of hospital care in eastern North Carolina have dramatically improved in the last 20 years, the region is still plagued by chronic disease and an overall mortality rate that is 12 percent higher than the rest of the state. Indeed, if the region were itself a state, it would rank 50th in the country in premature death, according to Mansfield.
To address this disparity will require "a transformation in the practice of public health and medicine," said Mansfield, one that emphasizes prevention, health promotion, strategic partnerships and greater efficiency. More appropriately trained public health professionals are needed to provide leadership in planning and implementing this change.
Currently, master's-prepared public health professionals are in short supply in eastern North Carolina, with an immediate need for an additional 200 people in public health departments and institutional settings. Planners decided that existing MPH programs in the state couldn't supply all that are needed. The School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill supplies national and international markets, with few graduates taking jobs in the health departments of eastern North Carolina. Much smaller and more regionally focused are an MPH program in health education and promotion at UNC-Greensboro and a master of science program in health education at UNC-Charlotte.
Dr. Skip Cummings, a pharmacist and professor of family medicine who will be teaching in the program, said, "The degree issued by ECU will be a general MPH that will specifically emphasize rural health and the integration of medicine with public health." In addition, it will be more interdisciplinary in character than any of the state's other programs.
Cummings expects that many of the students for the program will already be involved in public health or public health-related careers but will lack previous formal training. Among them would be physicians, nurses, and allied health professionals. Other likely candidates would be