Focus, Health Care, and Higher Education

Dont want to be a doctor or nurse

August 27, 2012
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There are a number of college students who feel drawn to a career in health care but don’t possess the requisite aptitude, time or finances to become doctors, dentists or nurses.

Calvin College has launched a new public health major tailored for a burgeoning medical services job market that doesn’t require draping a stethoscope around one’s neck.

Think of it as a major aimed at improving the health of a community through education, lifestyle improvement and disease prevention, all of which has tucked within it a component not always associated with health care: a cadre of liberal arts classes in philosophy, ethics, economics and political science.

“We imagine it is going to be interesting to students who are interested in health care but don’t see themselves as practitioners or clinicians,” said Cheryl Brandsen, dean for social sciences and contextual disciplines and one of three principal architects of the public health major that required about two-and-a-half years to develop.

“It’s not uncommon for students to say, ‘I’m pre-med’ or ‘I’m in the nursing program,’ and they get into those areas and discover, while they’re very interested in health issues, they don’t want to be practitioners or doctors or nurses or whatever.”

A review of the new major reveals that it pulls together an interplay of the natural sciences and liberal arts, including biology, nursing, environmental studies, sociology, social work, kinesiology, computer science, political science, economics, international development studies and philosophy.

Students armed with such a major can find work in a broad range of public health careers: health-services administration; biomedical laboratory work and biostatistics; health education/behavioral science; public-health practice/program management; epidemiology; environmental health; nutrition and international health.

“There are five traditional main areas in health care — epidemiology, biostatistics, another is health behavior education, another is health care policy and management, and finally, global environmental health,” said Brandsen.

“We imagine students will go to graduate school and specialize in one of those five areas, but we also see the job market shifting. Public health careers tend to be at the master’s level and now it’s working down to the undergraduate level for entry-level positions. This is a big picture emphasis on public health, and that field is very diverse in terms of where people find employment. That’s one of the distinguishing factors to this major.”

Careers would include health administration, biostatistics, epidemiology, health education, environmental health and biomedical laboratories.

Developing the public health major required culling courses the college was already teaching, such as global and environmental health, health care ethnics and statistics, but it also needed to originate five new classes. These include introduction to public health, epidemiology, a weekly public health seminar, integrative public health and an internship in public health, which could send students to far-flung regions of the world, to the nation’s capital or a local public health clinic.

“We imagine this a really good major or minor that students can couple with another major or minor and earn a double major or double minor because this program is solidly grounded in the liberal arts,” said Brandsen. “We’re not training them to be public health practitioners, but we’re helping them to understand the big picture issues in health care.”

Brandsen cites New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s attempts to ban the sale of large-size soft drinks as an example of how people versed in Calvin’s public health major could help.

“In order to come to decisions on whether that’s a good thing or not, you need people with expertise to sit around the table,” she said. “There are people around the table who may know the best way the address the problem … to hold out a carrot or use a stick.”

The college also offers a 23-credit minor in public health, which enables the college to fulfill one of the federal government's initiatives laid out in Healthy People 2020, which aims to increase the number of undergraduate students studying public health from 7 percent to 10 percent by 2020.

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