Public health as a public good

The founders of UND’s Master of Public Health program reflect on their 10th anniversary

Assistant Professor of Political Science Laura Hand instructs Master of Public Health students in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Photo courtesy of the School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of North Dakota Medicine.

By Brian James Schill

“Our students are involved in everything we do. Everything. And that has been a priority for us from the beginning.”

For Christina Oancea, Ph.D., associate professor in the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences’ Master of Public Health (MPH) program, the insistence that students participate in nearly every aspect of public health work—from contact tracing to epidemiology from policymaking to marketing – is what makes it such a special place.

“The internships that our students get, often even before graduation, are incredible and are a result of what these organizations see our students doing here. They get offers right away,” she says with a smile. “A lot of times we’ll hire students as graduate assistants, and then before you know it, someone like the North Dakota Department of Health wants them. This story has happened so many times.

Just ask Katarina Domitrovich.

“I started as a follower of the UND team’s contacts with the state in the early days of COVID-19,” says the health equity coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Health. “The relationships I have made in this role, the UND MPH program, and my experience working for UND in a public health position have allowed me to step into my current role with confidence and with tools in my toolbox to succeed and to serve the people of North Dakota well.”

The MPH program at UND is celebrating its 10th anniversary this academic year. In those 10 years, the program has graduated more than 100 health professionals, nearly all of whom have earned doctorates, are publishing in major journals, managing state-level COVID-19 outbreaks, and dealing with things like substance use disorders, tuberculosis, sexually transmitted infections and suicide in their local communities – among many other public health priorities.

Cristina Oancea

In the beginning

“Over the years, we have seen tremendous student growth,” adds Ashley Bain, MPH Program Manager. “We have had 100% employment for our graduates for several years now, which is fantastic. The need for public health in general has grown over the years and I think especially now [post-COVID]people know that.

But it wasn’t always like that. Although not necessarily under attack, public health as a profession was in a very different place ten years ago. Much of the developed world at least thought that most communicable diseases were under control and that communities understood the value of things like sanitation, sober driving, and seat belt use. Likewise, tobacco use is declining.

Then came the opioid epidemic, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, renewed debates about gun violence in the United States, and an increase in suicide among many age cohorts — all of which contributed to a decline in life expectancy in America by 2019.

Topping it all off was, of course, COVID-19, which as of this writing has claimed more than one million lives in the US alone.

All of this, Oancea says, has contributed to the huge interest in public health programs not only at UND but across the country in recent years. As such, what began in 2012 as a small program — fewer than 10 students enrolled — has grown to one with more than 80 current students.

After arriving at UND in 2013, Oancea, an epidemiologist by training, admits to being proud of helping shape the 10-year-old program almost from its inception.

“I loved the fact that I would be among the pioneers developing the program,” continues the researcher, who saw the opportunity to also build the North Dakota Cancer Registry with UND’s Dr. Mary Ann Sense too good to pass up.

So she came home from Memphis, Tennessee, where she had done postdoctoral work in cancer epidemiology at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and set to work helping the program implement what she had chosen as specific lines of research and population health analysis and health management and policy.

“And I can proudly say that we have an amazing MPH program with the group that we have, and we’ve been able to grow over time,” Oancea says.

Such growth and professional focuses were goals of the program’s founding director, Dr. Ray Goldstein, who, along with his wife, Dr. Karen Goldstein, led the program from 2012 to 2018 and achieved its first accreditation from the Accreditation Council for Public health (CEPH). ) in 2016.

“First, we felt that in all areas — urban or rural — people need strong analytics skills,” says Ray, who spoke to North Dakota Medicine by phone from his home in California. “So we emphasized analysis and made it one of the main features of the curriculum and started working with students, helping them achieve their goals.”

The Goldsteen team immediately began building partnerships with community agencies where the students might find themselves.

“One of the most exciting things for me was the connection we had with the community,” Ray continues, citing the relationships he has had with local politicians and health care providers. “We’ve had great relationships with Altru Health System, the Grand Forks Health Department and other health and community service organizations in Grand Forks and the state.”

Ray Goldstein, founding director of the Master of Public Health program at UND, is pictured here with his wife, Karen Goldstein. Together they ran the program from 2012 to
2018 and received its first accreditation from the Council of
Accreditation in Public Health (CEPH) in 2016. Photo courtesy of Ray and Karen Goldstein.

Academic partnerships

So here is the program, a decade later, with dozens of students enrolled at all levels in its many streams.

Part of what made the program at UND so successful, both Goldsteins say, were the academic partnerships it developed between UND and the state. These partnerships include joint degree offerings — accelerated BS/MPH, MD/MPH and JD/MPH — at UND.

“We felt that public health is inherently an integrative profession – it’s not a stand-alone one,” Karen explains. “It relies on the skills of many different disciplines.”

One such integration was a partnership with UND’s Nistler College of Business and Public Administration.

“We actually had a joint tenancy in that area,” Ray continues. “Common faculty in this area between the business school and our school. All those things that we wanted to flourish—partnerships with the business school, the law school, and in the medical school. We were looking for these opportunities to make it as creative as possible and to keep us from being isolated.”

The next decade

And it worked.

On the heels of both COVID and the recent reaccreditation by CEPH, the MPH program is struggling with an increase in applications. At the height of the pandemic, Bain says, applications for the program at one point were up 80 percent over the previous year.

Then, for the next 10 years, Oancea says the program is focused on developing the recently added third strand in indigenous health and exploring a possible new direction in environmental health.

“Word of mouth has gotten us to the point where we now have students from other departments at UND—doctoral students in their respective departments—who also decided to join our MPH program because they heard about our success,” beamed Oancea. “It’s quite humbling when students — and faculty — from other departments come to our program to study. This is very encouraging.”

All of which, she says, speaks volumes for the program UND has built in 10 short years.

“I keep telling our alumni that they are our ambassadors. If they are successful in their careers, it is a reflection not only of their hard work and our work as educators, mentors and advisors; it is a reflection of the support they have received from their families and the schools they have come from.”

Dmitrovich agrees, noting that the program’s faculty and staff, and Bain in particular, hardly get the credit they deserve for building an outstanding program.

“[Bayne] and the rest of the faculty ensure that students feel supported throughout their time in the program in a way that I have never experienced academically,” says Dmitrovich. “I truly believe that UND’s MPH program helped me fulfill my vocation, or really my calling in life, to work in public health.”

About the author

Brian James Schill

Brian James Shill is the director of the Office of Alumni and Community Relations at the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

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