The community in which a person lives serves as the stepping stone toward reaching or maintaining one’s good health and overall well-being. Public health educators help make this possible. They possess the skills that help identify which risk factors a group of people share in common and how interventional strategies can improve the population’s health.
Paul Devereux, an associate professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, recently spoke about community health education, detailing some of the specifics about University of Nevada, Reno’s Master of Public Health program and what it takes to succeed — both inside and outside the classroom.
What are some good courses to take for community health education?
A Master of Public Health (MPH) is a passcode that can unlock the doors in public health as a profession, thanks to top-quality curriculum in place at the University of Nevada, Reno and the professors who provide students with the skills necessary to thrive in the field. In terms of community health education, in particular, health program planning (CHS 720) and health program evaluation (CHS 721) are examples of crucial courses, Devereux advised.
“Community Health Sciences 720 and CHS 721 are important courses because they teach students how to launch community interventions, and then they give them the skills on how to identify whether an intervention is effective or not,” Devereux explained.
“An example of a community health intervention could be a program to help reduce childhood obesity by increasing the walkability and safety of neighborhoods.”
Childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 20 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 19 are obese, defined as having a Body Mass Index of 30 or more. Being severely overweight puts children at risk for health complications early in their lives, including type 2 diabetes, joint problems, sleep apnea and even heart disease.
Childhood obesity has risen dramatically over the past several years, now three times higher today than it was in the 1970s. Its frequency, according to CDC’s analysis, is often influenced by societal and cultural factors associated with geography. High school students in the South tend to have the highest rates of obesity among teens, between 15 percent and 20 percent in states like Mississippi, South Carolina and Louisiana. In the Northeast and West Coast, obesity rates are in the 10 to 14 percent range.
Devereux notes that both CHS 720 and CHS 721 provides students with the guidelines public health professionals can use to launch interventions so communities can be empowered to provide healthy environments for children to learn and play.
Interventions can reduce cancer risk
Community interventions can also be effective in the battle against cancer, particularly in terms of prevention. According to the American Cancer Society, more than 1.6 million people will be diagnosed with cancer in 2017 and over 600,900 will die from the disease. However, through precautionary and preemptive methods, like colonoscopies, scores of individuals have been able to identify cancer early on and be treated before tumors or malignant polyps have had time to progress. Public health professionals can play a key role in cancer prevention by teaching the public about the importance of cancer screenings.
“Success would be evaluated based on whether or not people obtained a colonoscopy after receiving the intervention and how prepared the patient was for [the procedure],” Devereux said. “Better educated patients come in better prepared for the test.”
Professor Devereux is well-versed in interventional strategies, especially those that pertain to cancer prevention. His community-based research has focused on colon cancer screening, specifically within the Latino community. He’s received a government grant as part of the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Research Resources to conduct his analysis, the results of which will soon be released.
Devereux noted that their intervention saw an improvement among men, which was surprising, given that men typically aren’t as well prepared for colonoscopies compared to women.
Public health educators evaluate
Intervention is one of the means public health professionals use to help people arrive at healthier ends. Many University of Nevada, Reno students have become program evaluators, performing analysis on whether the systems in place are running effectively and goals are being reached.
“Other students oversee programs to address a community health concern and design the interventions,” Devereux added. “Some students go on to have their own consulting firms or work for organizations like the American Cancer Society or American Heart Association.”
Students must ‘think globally’
“It’s important that students think globally and are concerned with issues beyond the U.S. border,” Devereux advised.
Many Americans today tend to be more nationally focused. In 2015, health officials at the World Health Organization warned about the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne disease linked to many neurological complications and birth defects. Most cases at the time were confined largely to Central and South America. Perhaps because of this, the vast majority of Americans — 90 percent — weren’t worried about Zika or the possibility that they might contract it, according to a recent poll conducted by Gallup.
Hunger is another aspect of health that isn’t as serious in the U.S., but is a public health crisis in many developing countries. In places like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, an estimated 276 million people are “chronically undernourished,” according to statistics compiled by the World Hunger Education Service. Globally, approximately 795 million people don’t have enough food to eat, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, which translates to around 1 in 9 people.
These are the types of issues that Devereux says students ought to be aware of, as everyone has a role to play for the greater good.
“Students should be prepared to be advocates for public health and speak to the importance of the work and why it should be funded,” Devereux added.
Students — and eventually graduates — can go about this by getting involved with professional health awareness organizations. Through groups like the American Public Health Association, students can stay up to date about the issues affecting communities on the world stage and where their efforts may be needed.
“There are a number of opportunities for MPH students through internships or field studies to do and perform work all across the planet, including places like Russia, Africa and Europe,” Devereux hastened to mention.
Have a genuine desire to make a difference
Although the end goal of the Master of Public Health program is to graduate and find a rewarding, fulfilling career thereafter, students need to see the forest through the trees.
“Having a commitment to making a difference is important,” Devereux stressed. “In public health, it isn’t just about education, but taking that information and actually doing something with it. We want students who are motivated and find a concern for health in their communities and want the tools and skills to address those concerns.”
Devereux added students need to be able to approach this field from a big picture perspective. Over the course of a career, there will be some hits and misses, some home runs and some strikeouts. What’s important is staying motivated and keeping focused on what’s possible.
“If [students] continue to remain motivated and committed, then the payoffs are very rewarding,” Devereux said.
Whether through individual and family services or via social advocacy organizations, public health professionals have the tools individuals need to better themselves. A Master of Public Health degree from the University of Nevada, Reno can serve as the tool belt.
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