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Public Health and Social Work celebrate partnership

25-year-old program was ahead of its time

MSW/MPH Program Director Betty Ruth and SPH Associate Dean Leonard Glantz. Photo by Erika Carrillo (COM/CAS'06)

As Robert Brown, Boston University’s new president, stresses the need to strengthen connections between disciplines across the University, the dual degree program at the School of Social Work and the School of Public Health is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a national conference.

Public Health Social Work in the 21st Century, a free one-day event scheduled for Friday, May 19, is expected to draw 300 social workers, public health professionals, educators, clinicians, government officials, and donors to Boston University. Betty Ruth (SSW’84, SPH’85), a conference organizer and an associate clinical professor of social work and director of the MSW/MPH program, describes the event as the first interdisciplinary meeting between these two fields in decades.  

Ruth, who was the fourth person to graduate from BU’s dual-degree program, says changes in health care have spurred the creation of nearly 20 similar programs across the country. BU’s program, founded in 1981, has graduated more than 200 students.

Leonard Glantz, SPH associate dean, who helped establish the joint program, says that historically the two professions have dealt with similar problems from somewhat different perspectives. “The public health approach has been sanitation and health care,” he says. “And the social work approach has involved getting into individual homes and making sure people have access to services.”

Social workers doing intervention, such as helping a sick person cope with an illness, says Ruth, deal with different issues than public health social workers, who are more likely to focus on prevention. She says the movement in health care toward managed care has made prevention more of a priority and made it more important than ever for social workers and public health workers to collaborate.

The missions of public health social work, she says, involve both prevention and intervention. “How do we bundle prevention with intervention?” Ruth asks. “We must envision that as something we can do even when our resources are limited. Public health social work is characterized by its willingness to partner with anyone who wants to work with them.”

The conference is dedicated to Ruth Cowin, a cofounder of the dual-degree program and a public health social worker for six decades, who died last year at the age of 94. The all-day “working conference” is being sponsored entirely by program alumni. Speakers include Elizabeth Clark, the executive director of the National Association of Social Workers, and Patricia Volland, senior vice president for administration and finance at the New York Academy of Medicine. For more information, click here.

Brian Fitzgerald contributed to this report.