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UND program draws students with passion for improving public health

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Muna Mohamed has seen the conditions of people in her native Somalia and other African countries: Children living without adequate shelter. People who lack wheelchairs, who must crawl, causing damage to their skin. Individual...

Dr. Tanis Hastmann
Dr. Tanis Hastmann. JOHN STENNES/GRAND FORKS HERALD

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Muna Mohamed has seen the conditions of people in her native Somalia and other African countries: Children living without adequate shelter. People who lack wheelchairs, who must crawl, causing damage to their skin. Individuals with mental illness who are not receiving proper care.

And she intends to make a difference in their lives.

Mohamed, 24, who has lived in the U.S. for 13 years, began study in the University of North Dakota's new undergraduate degree program in public health education this fall.

She is among about a dozen students who plan to pursue a bachelor of science degree which is aimed at students who want to make an impact in the health arena on a broader scale, according to Dr. Tanis Hastmann, who came to UND a year ago as program director.

It is the only program in North Dakota that prepares students to sit for the "certified health education specialist" examination, she said.

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The "highly respected" CHES certification signals to potential employers and others "that you are competent, that you can implement programs" that are designed to improve public health, she said.

Expanding field

"Any kind of health care or health-related careers are booming," Hastmann said.

In the United States, the number of jobs in public health education is expected to increase 18 percent, from 2008 to 2018, she said, compared to the average job growth of 5 to 10 percent.

UND's program "will be attracting students interested in all aspects of health: HIV/AIDS, physical activity, nutrition, oil drilling, smoking cessation, chronic disease, communicable disease (TB outbreak), epidemiology, health policy, environmental health and many other topics," Hastmann wrote in an email to the Herald.

"Public health is so broad," she said.

An advantage of the new program is that "it can be tailored to what (the students') interests are."

Students will analyze the cultural, ethical and legal factors that affect health and health care and "apply (public health knowledge) to different situations," she said.

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The program offers "essential studies courses" in global health, public health and epidemiology, the branch of medicine that investigates the causes and control of epidemics, to all students at UND, not only those pursuing the public health education degree.

Hastmann expects that some students will be interested in her research area, obesity prevention, as well as other issues such as minority health, rural health care, health disparities and recycling, she said.

They may want to increase their impact by pursuing a career in writing about health care, or becoming health care advocates, and so would include communications courses in their studies, said Hastmann.

She has reached out to faculty colleagues in communications, economics and public policy on campus, she said.

The public health education program is housed in the newly renamed Department of Kinesiology and Public Health Education, a division of UND's College of Education and Human Development.

The first students are expected to complete degree requirements, which includes an internship, in summer 2015.

Impacting groups, not individuals

Students who are drawn to this program are not heading for careers as doctors or nurses, Hastmann said. "They don't want to treat people in a clinical setting.

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"They are interested in what we can do to better impact" the health status of people generally.

Lydia Brooke, 19, a UND freshman from Dickinson, who is planning to pursue a bachelor's degree in public health education, said she considered pursuing a career in nursing.

As part of a leadership group in high school, she visited the state's public health unit in Dickinson and had a chance to talk with employees.

"That sparked my interest," she said. "They're involved in many aspects of health. It's not just one thing -- like dental hygiene or tobacco control or breast-feeding -- it's very broad. And I like that."

She prefers the opportunity to impact groups of people, rather than individuals, she said. "I'm excited to see what happens, what's in store for me."

She and other students in the public health education program may be aiming for careers in public health at the local, state or federal level; in health care administration and policy; working in hospitals or child-care centers or in university research settings.

People in this field are involved in issues concerning removal of health-threatening asbestos in older buildings and education about the need of mothers-to-be for folic acid to reduce the risk of birth defects.

National trends

The growing need for knowledgeable people in the area of public health is a result of the cost of health care, said Dr. Dennis Caine, UND professor of kinesiology and public health education, who developed the degree program at UND.

"People at all levels are becoming aware of the importance of prevention," he said.

Leaders in the state's health department and medical and allied health education stepped forward to endorse the need for knowledgeable people in public health.

Similar programs in other parts of the country "are attracting large numbers of students," Caine said, "and I think students are aware of the job opportunities, especially with our aging population."

The nation's shift to greater emphasis on prevention has led to the addition of a behavioral component in the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, required of students who are interested in entering the field of medicine. The change takes effect in 2015, Hastmann said.

In testing "students will have to demonstrate some knowledge in public health and wellness," she said.

Advances

In the past century, public health has played a role in extending by 30 years the average lifespan of a U.S. citizen, from 48 to about 78, Hastmann said.

"Public health has been a huge part of that," she said, as well as the contributions of the medical field.

Students who are motivated by social justice are likely to be attracted to the public health field, she said.

Mohamed is an example.

"Ever since I was young, I was always interested in helping people, not treating them, but educating them, especially the poor," she said.

Family members have questioned her decision, saying that a career in nursing would be more lucrative and she "could get a job anywhere."

But, she tells them, "This is what I love," she said. "At least if I can make a difference in people's lives that will be better."

She hopes to use the education she receives here to bring about change in laws and policy "that benefit people who are underserved" in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya where members of her family live, she said.

"I need to make a difference."

Knudson covers Health and Family for the Herald and can be reached at (701) 780-1107, (800) 477-6572, ext.1107 or pknudson@gfherald.com .

Dr. Tanis Hastmann in her behavioral science lab
, director of University of North Dakota's undergraduate public health education program, in her behavioral science lab at UND. JOHN STENNES/GRAND FORKS HERALD

Related Topics: HEALTH
Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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