As the Associate Director of the MPH Program, I work closely with the Director Dr. Anthony Schlaff, Director of Public Health Program, on issues related to curriculum development. This includes the core curriculum, Concentration areas and required coursework, as well as elective course offerings.
One of the things that I have observed since joining the faculty in 2002, has been the evolution of the MPH student body in two important demographic ways. First, many students embark on their masters degrees at younger ages, and therefore often have less life experience compared to the cohort enrolled in the MPH program back when I started 15 years ago. Many come for their MPH degree a year or two after college; or, as we have grown our BA/MPH with Tufts University’s School of Arts & Sciences, they matriculate into our graduate program immediately after they’ve obtained their bachelor’s degree.
Increasingly, our students are full-time students; and while they are able to complete their MPH degrees over a shorter time period; many complete our program with little job experience. For some of our graduates, their only public health field experience comes from their required, culminating Applied Learning Experience. This lead to my observation that these less experienced students could gain substantive knowledge from additional for credit coursework that has a ‘field experience’ component.
A field-based experiential course would help students gain additional real life insights on how ‘public health’ work is done. They could better understand the dynamics of decision-making by organizations and their staff and leaders, as well as come to appreciate how the playout of real life events—some predictable and some not--can shape what happens in actuality.
I recently completed a three-year term as a Commissioner on the newly established Massachusetts Health Policy Commission (HPC) where I worked closely with other Commissioners and the HPC staff. I realized this agency could be an ideal setting for students to gain a field experience—especially for those with strong health policy interests. Beyond the substance of the policy issues, as a Commissioner I was able to see how a brand new governmental agency develops its strategic aims, hires staff and begins the challenging work of organizing and carrying out a variety of activities aimed at advancing a more affordable and higher quality health care system in our state. This work occurs in the context of a very volatile national and state health policy and political environment.
The ‘field course’ I envisaged had a more limited classroom component, and most importantly, a significant agency-based experience where students would attend HPC board and committee meetings, as well as interact with HPC staff. They might also talk to people who work for or are advocates for various health care system stakeholders, such as trade groups representing hospitals, insurers or consumer advocates. The goal would be as much to learn about how a government agency does complicated policy work in a ‘political’ environment as to learn the substance of the health policy issues that are being worked on—often in a cutting edge sort of way.
So with that vision, I reached out to a very capable member of the HPC staff who has a MPH and a law degree to partner with me to create the field course we are offering for the first time this spring.
I am happy to report, the approach is contagious. In learning about this initial effort, others are beginning to plan other ‘field course’ offerings. Dr. Carolyn Rubin, Assistant Professor of Public Health and Community Medicine, is designing a field course that would involve a Chinatown organization.
Stay tuned for future developments. I thought it would be useful to bring this idea to readers of Public Health Rounds-- especially our alumni who may be interested in sharing ideas for development of a field course tied to their place of employment.
Wishing you all well.
Paul Hattis, M.D., J.D., M.P.H.
Associate Director, MPH Program