As announced in last week’s press release, Clark University and the IDCE Department are launching a major new degree program, the Master of Health Sciences (MHS), in the fall of 2017. The new program, begun with the aid of a generous grant from the Leir Charitable Foundations, is designed to challenge students to think in new and innovative ways about health science, policy and practice, and to seek solutions that elude more traditional ways of thinking about health.
Students in the new MHS will choose a concentration in Community Health or Global Health, but the curricula of the two concentrations will overlap by design, so that all students have some exposure to both. Interested students have an incentive to apply soon: consideration for Clark’s merit-based fellowships will begin on May 5th.
The new MHS program will be coordinated by Dr. Marianne Sarkis, a medical anthropologist and professor in IDCE. Sarkis notes that the department “has always been involved with health, whether it was related to HIV/AIDS, transactional sex in Senegal, access to clean water in Mexico, children’s health, community violence prevention or reproductive health of refugees and immigrants.” But interest in health studies has been steadily growing for some years, at both the graduate and undergraduate level. Two years ago, in response, Associate Provost Bill Fisher (a former director of IDCE) and Jim Gomes of Clark’s Mosakowski Institute sought the assistance of the Leir Foundations. Their efforts paid off: in late 2016, Leir awarded a $500,000 grant for the creation of the MHS program. Now it’s all systems go for the program’s first cohort this fall.
A baseline ethical perspective—health care as a right, not a privilege—forms part of the program’s guiding philosophy. And like all aspects of learning at IDCE, the MHS program will transcend disciplinary boundaries. Such an approach, Sarkis emphasizes, is crucial. “The complexity of today’s health problems requires solutions that are multi-disciplinary, multi-level, creative and participatory—both bottom-up and top-down.” Another key element of the program will be its hands-on approach. “With guidance from faculty, students will learn how to apply the knowledge they learn from books and classes to solving real life problems. They’ll be encouraged to engage communities in identifying their needs, priorities, and solutions, working with them to figure out the best responses to issues affecting their health.”
Another key aspect of the MHS—in keeping, again, with the IDCE vision—will be the emphasis on combining scholarship with practice. Students will pursue rigorous classroom studies in subjects from epidemiology to biostatistics to health equity and access. But they will also gain hands-on experience through a field project or practicum, and learn the essential skill of engaging with health care stakeholders—patients, providers, policy makers and the wider community to which they belong.
IDCE Professor Ellen Foley will also be teaching in the MHS program. Dr. Foley, whose research interests include reproductive health and HIV/AIDS in West Africa, says that the new program “offers students the chance to connect the dots between global economics and policy priorities, the organization and delivery of health care, and the challenges that people face getting and staying healthy.” She draws attention to the program’s commitment to health equity and ending health disparities. “The program will better prepare students to decide how they want to engage in community and global health issues as catalysts for positive change,” she adds.
One field that doesn’t instantly come to mind when discussing health education is Geographic Information Science (GIS), but IDCE Professor Yelena Ogneva-Himmelberger points out its relevancy. “GIS and remote sensing allow visualizing and analyzing spatial patterns of disease distribution, and investigating how health outcomes and processes differ from place to place. GIS maps may indicate connections and trends that would not otherwise be apparent.” For this reason, the new MHS features a required GIS skills course, which Dr. Ogneva-Himmelberger will be offering in the coming academic year.
What does all this mean in practice, however? In 2013, the magazine of Columbia University argued that “the basic model of public health education hasn’t changed substantially in a century.” Will IDCE’s new program really challenge business as usual?
Sarkis’ answer is an emphatic yes. “I’m not interested in having students generate knowledge for the sake of knowledge. There’s been so much harm done by ‘helicopter research,’ and we can certainly do better by the students and the communities with whom we work.”
As an illustration, she points to issues surrounding immigrant and refugee communities. Faced with so many changes and challenges at once—food, language, customs, climate, employment, transport—newly-arrived persons often develop a variety of health problems. High blood pressure, diabetes and other chronic illnesses are common. Traditional responses would focus on the triad of prevention, intervention and health promotion: important to be sure, but less than adequate to the intricate challenges facing health practitioners today.
“Prevention campaigns tell people to eat better, exercise, and get regular checkups,” says Sarkis. “But many immigrants live in neighborhoods that are not safe or that don’t have sidewalks. Many work two to three jobs. Exercising can be very difficult. And telling people to have cereal for breakfast does not work for populations that are lactose intolerant or not used to cereal. A more thoughtful approach would work with the community to identify barriers, challenges, and needs, and build on their strengths and existing practices to make the modifications to their diets that make sense to them.”
This thoughtful approach–and an intellectually robust, socially committed, cross-disciplinary forum for its expression–are what the new MHS promises its students this coming fall.
For more information, please visit the MHS home page.