The University of Minnesota is adding a new Bachelor of Public Health major in an effort to help meet the state’s critical need for a more stable and diverse workforce to keep residents healthy.
The new program, set to launch in the fall, adds to the U’s existing public health offerings: a master’s degree and undergraduate minor, which has proven to be one of the most popular minors on the Twin Cities campus. Other Minnesota institutions, including the University of St. Thomas, Hamline University and the University of St. Catherine, offer bachelor’s degree programs in this field.
This is the first undergraduate program in the 78-year history of the U School of Public Health and will support a career field that has been in the spotlight since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Public health leaders are needed “now more than ever,” U executive vice president and provost Rachel Crosson wrote in a statement. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed “opportunities for improvement in our current public health system” and revealed racial, geographic and health disparities, she wrote.
“This new program will equip students with the skills to understand public health challenges, implement prevention strategies, and address the underlying influences that determine health outcomes and disparities,” Crosson wrote.
A “tsunami” of retirements has also depleted the public health workforce, which has been stretched thin by the burdens and demands of meeting community health needs during the pandemic, said Ruby Nguyen, an associate professor in the School of Public Health.
More than a third of public health workers who left the field or were fired at the start of the pandemic reported some form of work-related harassment while leading sometimes unpopular measures to combat the pandemic, according to research published in American Journal of Public Health. .
In addition, a recent study by the School of Public Health indicates that at least 80,000 new employees are needed to meet the nation’s most basic public health needs.
“There’s a lot of dinner party talk about the role of public health and public health practitioners, and many Minnesotans feel that public health has too much influence in their lives,” Nguyen said. “But there is a lot of quiet, successful work in this area that we are at risk of losing if we are unable to maintain the current public health infrastructure.”
The hope is that offering the major will prepare a larger and more diverse group of students to help fill open positions.
Nearly half of this year’s approximately 500 U of A students with a public health minor are Indigenous or from communities of color, Nguyen said.
“We see that there is absolute interest in the field and interest among students that we would like to hire because of the disparities that we and they want to bridge,” she said.
What makes the degree program — which will accept juniors — different from other undergraduate offerings is the broad, community-oriented approach to teaching public health. A nutritionist or psychologist may go on to work in public health, but their education is likely to focus on treating the individual, Nguyen said. A student pursuing a bachelor’s degree in public health will have courses that consider both the personal and systemic factors that determine good or poor health, Nguyen said.
The curriculum will include ways to create effective public health strategies to prevent disease, promote health in local communities, and identify and eliminate health disparities.
Graduates of the program could go on to work in public health education, research or data analysis roles in local health departments, nonprofits, health care systems or research centers, university leaders said.
“We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response to the announcement,” Nguyen said. “I hear students say, ‘I wish I had this five or ten years ago.'”