School's pioneering online M.P.H. program wraps up inaugural semester, addresses health worker shortage

After Ravi Mehta finishes his workday as a psychologist at the San Francisco Department of Public Health, he logs onto his computer at home to attend class at the University of California, Berkeley. This week, Mehta and his fellow students will have completed the inaugural courses of the On-Campus/Online Masters in Public Health degree program, the first ever online degree offered by UC Berkeley.

Part of the impetus behind the pioneering online program is an estimated shortage of 250,000 trained public health professionals in the United States. In California alone, the shortage numbers 25,000 to 30,000, with the problem expected to worsen due to the projected retirement of 50 percent of the current public health workforce within the next five years.

Providing access to quality education to more people would help alleviate the shortage of health care professionals, said Stephen Shortell, dean of the School of Public Health.

According to the American Public Health Association, shortages in such fields as epidemiology and environmental health are particularly acute. “That means fewer people available to help investigate outbreaks and track diseases, and fewer people who can monitor and control pollutants that impact human health,” said Shortell.

Approximately 450,000 paid, full-time workers—an estimated 45 percent of whom are employed in governmental settings—now comprise the national public health workforce.

“For many of these workers, leaving their full-time jobs to obtain a degree is impractical,” said Shortell. “The online/on-campus format we are offering gives working professionals the ability to obtain a degree while continuing their employment.”

Such was the case for Mehta, who said he wants to pursue public health training to go from “intervention” to “prevention” in his work.

“By continuing to work full-time, I’ve been able to bring to the class my real-time experiences. I’ve been able to talk about mental health and how public health is an important piece of it, and how we’re integrating that into public care,” Mehta said. “Also, if I quit my job, I’d be poor.”

Final approval to move forward with the School of Public Health’s program came in December 2011, and the school admitted an initial group of eight students for the Spring 2012 semester. The first two courses offered were Environmental Health Sciences and Biostatistics.

“We’re intentionally keeping the number of students small during the first year, which we consider to be a pilot phase,” said Dr. Nap Hosang, head of the online degree program at the School of Public Health. “So far, we’ve had greater than 80 percent satisfaction from the students with the curriculum offered, and 80 percent satisfaction from the faculty-admin side with the processes we’ve established in developing the program.”

The fact that students will move through the program together has had a positive impact on class dynamics, while the long reach of online learning is resulting in an interesting mix of students, according to instructors.

“It’s a cohort. They know they’re not taking just one class together, but a whole program together, so there is a sense of camaraderie that develops,” said assistant researcher Elizabeth Carlton, who co-instructs the first course, Environmental Health Sciences. “It is a really diverse group, with students one would not normally get on campus.”

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By Sarah Yang