HEALTH MATTERS: Introducing public healthQ. I’ve heard UND and NDSU are now offering a joint Master of Public Health (MPH) degree program. What is public health, and what will public health graduates do?
By: Raymond Goldsteen, Grand Forks Herald
Q. I’ve heard UND and NDSU are now offering a joint Master of Public Health (MPH) degree program. What is public health, and what will public health graduates do?
A. These are reasonable questions because the field of public health is not as well understood as medicine and other health professions. Although medicine and public health share the goal of improving health for all people, they are different and complementary endeavors. One of the most famous statements ever made about public health, written in 1988 by the Institute of Medicine’s Committee for the Study of the Future of Public Health, says the mission of public health is to “fulfill society’s interest in assuring conditions in which people can be healthy.” Public health is devoted to prevention of health problems, rather than their treatment, by creating situations or conditions that promote health and prevent illness, disease and disability.
Q. Why is obesity such a problem these days? What can public health officials do about it?
A. Obesity is recognized as epidemic in America, including North Dakota. In 2010, about 35 percent of adult women in the U.S. were obese. Among men, the prevalence since 2000 increased from about 27 percent to about the same as women. In Grand Forks County, 31 percent of adults are obese, as are 30 percent in the state. Obesity is known to play a role in the development of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, some cancers and premature death. Obesity adversely impacts the physical, psychological and financial health of those who experience it, and it takes a toll on their families, communities and society, as well. We all have a stake in reducing the problem of obesity.
Public health officials have brought the obesity problem to public attention by gathering statistics that are used to monitor societal health problems of all kinds. However, public health goes beyond monitoring health problems. Public health initiatives to prevent obesity exemplify its unique approach to promoting health, that is, by creating conditions in which everyone has the opportunity to prevent or mitigate this serious health problem. Public health efforts include providing space and resources for community gardens that produce healthful foods, developing programs that teach people how to prepare nourishing meals for themselves and their families, and creating bike and walking trails that give people the opportunity to exercise.
These initiatives and others to reduce the prevalence of obesity in America have been undertaken at the federal level, particularly by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and at the state and local levels by departments of health and other public agencies. They have also been initiated by private organizations, sometimes working with the public sector. Collaborations with health care providers such as Altru Health System, Blue Cross Blue Shield, business coalitions and community groups are common. They are examples of public health in action as private and public endeavors. The new Grand Forks Choice Health and Fitness facility, a collaboration between the Grand Forks Park District and Choice Financial, is a great example of a publicand private partnership to promote health.
The initiatives to reduce obesity in America point toward the kind of work that MPH graduates will undertake. Graduates will work to keep people healthy, improve health, and prevent disease, disability and premature death. They will contribute to monitoring the health of populations, developing programs and policies that prevent health problems, and providing information to people about how to stay healthy.
Goldsteen is director of the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences Master of Public Health degree program, which is jointly offered with NDSU. He has devoted most of his professional life to advancing public health and holds a doctorate degree in Public Health.
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