School of health sciences organizes new public health department
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School of health sciences organizes new public health department

This semester, the USD School of Health Sciences organized the new Department of Public Health and Health Sciences, and while it doesn’t offer any new majors, it does combine several programs to allow for new educational opportunities.

DenYelle Kenyon, Associate Dean of Health Sciences, said the new department is the result of Dean of Health Sciences Haifa Samra looking for ways for programs within the school to collaborate.

The department combines three programs — an undergraduate program in health sciences, a Ph.D. program in health sciences and a master’s program in public health.

“I think it was a natural fit,” Kenyon said. “It helps the student who might come in at the bachelor’s level and see that there’s additional higher education that they could go for that are in related fields, and public health and health sciences are pretty similar.”

By combining smaller programs, Kenyon said, the school creates a bigger emphasis on that field and gets more momentum in collaboration between programs.

Kenyon said health science is very broad and prepares students for positions which are more patient-focused, whereas public health focuses on population-level outcomes. 

“A lot of the focus in public health is (getting) health promotion activities to impact the broader level of the population, so we think about things on a bigger scale, where health sciences and a lot of the other health professions are focused on just that person in front of you,” Kenyon said.

Amy Nelson, program director of the undergraduate health sciences program, said the name of the department itself shows how students are going to work on collaborating more with public health professionals.

“We’re going to have students working on projects together that bring in the health sciences and clinicians and bring them together with the public health folks in the MPH program,” Nelson said. “We can all be working together in our own ways, whether it’s from a population health perspective or from more of an individual health perspective and just show how those two worlds really need to collide.”

Nelson said the collaboration between students of all degree levels, as well as with faculty, will improve the health of the state, which is the ultimate goal of the School of Health Sciences. She said the sooner students get exposed to real life projects, the better.

“We shouldn’t be waiting until they’re Ph.D. programs students before they can really make a difference and work on some projects, I think we need to start on that earlier in their curriculum,” Nelson said.

The undergraduate program in health sciences is also joined with SDSU’s program. Kenyon said SDSU’s College of Pharmacy brings a unique perspective to the program, as it focuses more on agriculture.

Some of the undergraduate courses in the department are in-person, but students can graduate from all three of these programs online-only, which Kenyon said is a unique feature of the department.

“We find it offers a really nice flexibility for working professionals who want an advanced degree, or even the undergraduate degree,” Kenyon said. “They get a lot of people working in healthcare who are looking to come back for their bachelor’s degree, so the online (program) is a really positive thing for those folks.”

Sabina Kupershmidt, interim director of the Ph.D. in health sciences program, said the Ph.D. program is somewhat of a novelty in that there are few online Ph.D. programs around the country. She said it can be hard to envision an online Ph.D. program, since research is usually done in teams, whereas in this program, the Ph.D. advisor is in a different location than their advisees.

“We’ve had good results with it, we’ve had some functional projects come out of this, and we feel that we’re somewhat of a trailblazer here,” Kupershmidt said. “It’s not really a common thing yet, although with the current COVID crisis, there is certainly a move from face to face teaching to online teaching.”

Kupershmidt said the pandemic has dramatized a shift toward focusing on public health, but the shift itself has been coming for the past decade, and that conditions can’t be solved on an individual basis.

“I think the last people who adhere to this belief … recognize now that this is not the way to help society,” Kupershmidt said. “In all our individual programs, (we) recognize that we need to prepare our students to look at large pictures.”