The BU MPH: A Graduate Public Health Curriculum for Today and Tomorrow
This Dean’s Note is co-written by Associate Dean for Education Lisa Sullivan
The world’s public health needs are changing, as are the determinants of those health needs. Public health professionals today must contend with challenges in the production of population health—including global warming, population aging, urbanization, and environmental sustainability, to name but a few—that were barely on the radar of public health a couple of decades ago. These challenges, however, also present remarkable opportunities for public health intervention and action that can create conditions to make people healthier.
As the world changes, its public health needs are growing—there is a projected shortfall of nearly a quarter of a million public health workers by the year 2020. It falls on us, within an academic school of public health, to ensure that we are preparing the public health workforce of the future, equipped both to handle the public health challenges of 2015 and to adapt to the public health challenges of the coming decades.
At the same time, substantial shifts in pedagogic focus from teaching to learning, from discipline-specific courses to more integrated ones, from time in seats to mastery of competencies, and from memorization to application has created an opportunity for us to ensure we are creating educational programs that are dynamic and responsive to the world’s needs. Further sharpening our focus has been increasing competition and accountability that require all schools to focus on what the field needs rather than what kinds and how many graduates it can produce. Finally, rising student debt calls upon all educational programs to demonstrate their value.
A National Conversation about MPH Education
In part responding to these observations, a national conversation around the nature of MPH education has emerged over the past several years.
In 2012, the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH) formed the Framing the Future Task Force to “re-vision the role of education for public health 100 years after the Welch-Rose Report.” The Framing the Future Task Force was convened to address a number of challenges, including: a growing interest in undergraduate courses, programs and degrees; an increase in DrPH programs, which vary widely in terms of their focus and goals, calling for more explicit articulation with the MPH; a shift to competency-based educational models, which are not new but have not been consistently applied or evaluated in public health; an increase in the number of accredited schools and programs in public health with new and different concentrations and sub-specializations to address changes in the field and the demands of the workforce; an expansion of the sectors in which public health professionals work (the majority of public health professionals now work outside of local public health); changes in educational technology and pedagogy; and increased focus on continuous quality improvement in educational programs to define, evaluate, and update curricula.
To inform the Framing the Future Task Force, ASPPH conducted a survey of employers from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to collect data on emerging trends, critical components, and capabilities that should be considered in 21st century public health curricula. Perhaps the most relevant component of the report is the recommendations for essential elements of public health educational programs, which are not specific to the MPH, are not listed by priority, and are essentially a wish list not constrained by credits or credit hours: problem-solving, an understanding of how the health system works, leadership, management and teamwork, global health, policy, analytic methods, technology and information, budgeting and finance, and communications.
The Framing the Future Task Force MPH Expert Panel Report outlined several design features for the MPH of the 21st century, including that “the MPH degree should be based on a rigorous, structured, and carefully sequenced curriculum that may require prerequisite learning; the common element of all MPH degrees should be a well-designed core that covers critical and interdisciplinary content in foundational areas of public health; the MPH degree should offer in-depth education in concentration areas that are responsive to the interests of students, the strengths of the institution, and the needs of employers; and the practicum and the culminating experience in the MPH degree should be considered primarily as elements of the concentration rather than as elements of the core.”
Substantial support emerged for the recommendations of the MPH Expert Panel (as well as a proposal currently under review) by the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) to rework the criteria for the MPH to be far more specific, based on the recommendations of the MPH Expert Panel.
Designing an MPH for the Future at BU
Responding both to our observations about the world’s changing needs and to the national conversation about the MPH education, the BU community started its own internal conversation about our MPH in 2011. SPH formed the Assessment and Redesign Group, an ad hoc group of interested faculty and staff that met regularly to review our program through a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis and interviews with employers, current students, and alumni. This information was fed into the next phase of the redesign process, the MPH 2015 Task Force, which was founded by the Governing Council (GC) in 2012.
The MPH 2015 Task Force was comprised of representatives from each school-wide concentration, as well as Career Services and the Practice Office, and met biweekly from September 2012 through February 2014 to review proposals and develop recommendations. GC supported its work through two retreats to help guide the process. At the first retreat, the GC charged the MPH 2015 Task Force with developing these ideas and formalized the process; at the second, the GC reviewed progress and approved initial recommendations. The Task Force’s work was also guided by community input, which was gathered in a variety of forms. First, Task Force representatives were specifically charged with relaying and discussing the Task Force’s work with their faculty colleagues and relaying their colleagues’ discussions back to the Task Force. Second, formal working groups comprised of 36 faculty and 14 staff from across the School met in 2012 and 2013 to develop proposals on the program components (core curriculum, concentrations, practicum, culminating experience, and effective teaching and assessment strategies). Third, town hall meetings were held for all faculty, staff, and students to discuss the process and have their questions answered. Fourth, every full-time faculty member who was not on a working group was contacted via email for their input and offered an individual meeting. Finally, representatives of the task force regularly presented at standing meetings, including the Faculty Assembly and those of the Faculty Senate, department chairs, departments, and department administrators, to curriculum coordinators, and at student meetings with the Dean. Documentation about the process was posted on the redesign website, open to any member of the BU community.
In 2015, the GC approved the recommendations of the MPH 2015 Task Force and formed the BU MPH Implementation Task Force to oversee the implementation of the recommendations. Under the direction of the Implementation Task Force, four faculty working groups determined the basic content and teaching methods for the new integrated core courses, and the Practice Committee determined the parameters for the new practicum. The Implementation Task Force meets biweekly and holds monthly open forum to solicit input from the community.
The BU MPH
This process and our school-wide discussions have led to the design of a new MPH, to be fully implemented with the incoming class of 2016, that is dynamic, flexible, and works to resolve the biggest public health problems of our time. The BU MPH is a practice- and evidence-based degree that draws on the strong work that our faculty members have been doing for nearly 40 years, considers the changing nature of public health education, and reflects the expert work of our colleagues at ASPPH and around the nation. The MPH curriculum meets the needs of our current and future student body and begins a process for continuous quality improvement at the School. Implicit in the redesign is the reality that the field of public health, student composition, and competitor schools will continue to evolve in unpredictable ways; the new BU MPH helps us establish the infrastructure and curriculum to adapt to changes while maintaining continuity with our longstanding commitment to excellence in public health education.
The BU MPH ensures that graduates are competent in the knowledge and skills required for professional public health practice and are also well-informed, intellectually curious, and prepared for lifelong learning. The BU MPH provides training for both a first job and a foundation for a successful career in public health. It is interdisciplinary, practical, and adaptable to the needs of the students and their future employers and reflects the School’s mission to improve the health of populations locally, nationally, and internationally.
The components of the BU MPH are as follows:
- A strong foundation in the values, history, methods, and functions of public health through an Integrated Core Curriculum that provides the foundational knowledge and skills required for public health professionals in the 21st century through an integrated, problem-oriented core curriculum.
- Rigorous and sequenced training in focused specialty areas through Interdisciplinary Graduate Certificates in exciting areas targeted to the needs of the field. The specialization is the distinguishing feature of the BU MPH and is designed to be adaptable to changes in the field and the needs of the workforce.
- Professional Development and Practical Experience, including an enhanced Practicum to ensure that all graduates have the required practical experience for successful employment; a Culminating Experience in which students demonstrate their abilities to integrate, synthesize, and apply the knowledge and skills from their specialty areas as well as from other areas of public health that are relevant to their professional goals; and a comprehensive, co-curricular Career Development Program to ensure that all graduates have the necessary competencies, techniques, and professional confidence to effectively market themselves during the job search process and beyond.
Key Elements of the BU MPH
Some more details about each of the key elements of the BU MPH are as follows:
- Integrated Core Curriculum. The goal of the core curriculum is to provide a strong foundation of knowledge and skills across the spectrum of disciplines in public health; to allow students to see connections among traditional public health disciplines through examples, case studies, and problem-based learning; and to excite them to learn more, to prepare to interact effectively with public health professionals, and for further study. The core curriculum covers areas that are important for public health professionals of the future and is flexible and adaptable to add new content as guided by the needs of the field.
The four core courses are: Quantitative Methods for Public Health; Individual, Community, and Population Health; Health Systems, Law, and Policy; and Leadership and Management in Public Health. The courses have been designed by teams of faculty from every discipline and are truly integrated—not modular or sequential. Not only is each one critical, exciting, and rigorous, but taken together they provide the foundation for public health professionals of the 21st century.
- Interdisciplinary Graduate Certificates. To prepare our students with specialized skills for professional practice, all MPH students will be able to choose one to two graduate certificates that reflect relevant functional areas (interdisciplinary professional skills bases) and context areas focused on key populations or areas of interest in public health. The graduate certificates to be offered initially were chosen to reflect interests of students, the needs of the workforce, and our own expertise. The certificates were developed by our faculty; in consultation with Career Services and Admissions staff who have extensive experience with employers and prospective students, the Task Force then determined the certificates for our initial offering in 2016. The first certificates we will launch are in two central areas. Nine certificates are in functional areas. One of these will be required, although students may take two certificates. These are: Community Assessment, Program Design, Implementation, and Evaluation; Design and Conduct of Public Health Research; Environmental Hazard Assessment; Epidemiology and Biostatistics; Health Policy and Law; Health Communication and Promotion; Healthcare Management; Monitoring and Evaluation; and Program Management. Eight certificates are in context areas; students can take one of these in addition to a certificate in a foundational area. These are: Chronic and Non-Communicable Diseases; Global Health; Infectious Disease; Maternal and Child Health; Mental Health and Substance Use; Social Justice, Human Rights, and Health Equity; Sex, Sexuality, and Gender; and Pharmaceuticals.
This particular approach to curriculum design was selected for its flexibility. As we continue to monitor student preferences, the needs of the field, and our developing areas of expertise, we will adapt with new offerings to stay current.
Graduate certificates will also be open to working professionals (with appropriate prerequisite coursework or professional experience) who need additional training in specific areas for career advancement but who may not be seeking a full MPH. The certificates can be combined toward a more advanced certificate or degree at a later date.
- Professional Development and Practical Experience. A key and distinguishing feature of the BU MPH continues to be its focus on preparing students for real-world public health practice. Three critical elements comprise this component: the practicum, culminating experience, and our career development program.
Practicum. Students will complete a 240-hour practicum where they will have the opportunity to develop professional experience by applying what they are learning to build practical skills and professional confidence while contributing to the solutions of current public health problems.
Culminating Experience. The culminating experience provides an opportunity for students to integrate, synthesize, and apply knowledge and skills developed in the program to demonstrate mastery of the competencies specific to their selected certificates. Through the culminating experience, students develop work products (e.g. program plans, program evaluations, research proposals, grant applications, critical reviews, policy papers, or research reports) that can be used in job interviews or graduate school interviews to demonstrate their capabilities. The culminating experience will be tailored to specific competencies as appropriate for the student’s professional goals.
Career Development Program. The career development program ensures that all graduates have the necessary competencies, techniques, and professional confidence to effectively market themselves during the job search process and into their public health careers. The program includes: self-assessment to determine values, interests, and motivators; marketing strategies developed through researching sectors, industries, and employers; networking strategies and techniques (including development of a professional profile for LinkedIn); interviewing and negotiating strategies; and managing a public health career, emphasizing the skills involved not only to secure a first job, but also to develop a rewarding and productive career.
Evaluating the New MPH
A critical element in the new BU MPH will be ongoing, formative evaluation. A newly formed Evaluation Task Force, reporting to the Education Committee, will design the plan to formally and continually evaluate the program for the purposes of quality improvement. Their work will ensure that the BU MPH continues to be student-centered and effectively prepares them for their public health careers. The Evaluation Task Force’s work will be documented on the BU MPH website.
Launching the BU MPH
Core courses in the BU MPH will be piloted throughout Spring 2016, and the BU MPH will launch fully for the incoming student class of Fall 2016. This new program represents the extraordinary work of innumerable faculty, staff, students, alumni, employers, practicum supervisors, and community members over the past four years. Our MPH is stronger for its emergence from a community-wide effort.
The BU MPH represents an exciting time for SPH, allowing us to fully meet our responsibility to train professionals who will continue to be practitioners and leaders in public health around the country and the world. It allows us to further our claim to achieving distinction as a top-tier research institution with a strong history and commitment to real-world education and practice. Most importantly, the BU MPH will prepare graduates to solve complex public health problems both today and tomorrow, consistent with our mission to improve the health of local, national, and international populations—particularly the disadvantaged, underserved, and vulnerable—through excellence and innovation in education, research, and service.
I hope everyone has a terrific week. Until next week.
Sandro Galea, MD, DrPH
Dean and Professor, Boston University School of Public Health
Acknowledgement. We would like to acknowledge the help of Vanessa Edouard on this Dean’s Note and the work of countless members of the BU community to the evolution of the BU MPH.
Previous Dean’s Notes are archived at: https://www.bu.edu/sph/category/news/deans-notes/