Choosing a health profession that can affect millions of lives
When posed with the question of how he got involved in public health, Gerard E. Carrino, PhD, MPH, and head of the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health, chuckles before giving his answer.
“I accidently bumbled into public health,” he said.
Although he may joke about how he got into it, Carrino is quick to point out that public health has been a perfect fit since he discovered it while searching for a graduate program after completing his undergraduate degree in premed.
“I never had something that so perfectly fits my personality and skill set as public health does,” Carrino said. “I didn’t even really know that it existed when I was an undergraduate. I was premed as an undergrad and I became somewhat disenchanted with it in part because of what I see as an inefficiency of treating one patient at a time.
“I started searching for something that better fit my personality and I knew that it was all about prevention. I looked up graduate programs in preventive medicine and it just so happened that they were all jumbled together, preventive medicine and public health. I was blissfully surprised at just how disciplinary public health was, how important it was, and how powerful the training and education were.”
Carrino joined the Texas A&M School of Public Health in 2016 as an instructional professor after an extensive career in industry where he held both leadership and executive positions in nonprofit organizations including the March of Dimes Foundation, the New York Academy of Medicine, and Columbia University, among others.
Carrino, who served as interim head of the department in 2019, says he may not be a traditional department head in terms of his background and preparation, but he has two “secret weapons” that give him an edge.
“I have a lot of administrative experience from industry, running programs, running operations, an awful lot of planning and evaluation and problem solving,” Carrino said. “And, in all of the jobs I have had in my entire career, I put people first.
“For better or for worse, when you are in a large institution where you can get lost in the sea of humanity and bureaucracy, the people-supporting-people on the front lines are the department heads and they need to put people first. That means putting students, faculty and staff first because it’s a big world out there.”
Honored for work with students
Carrino’s priority of putting his students first was recognized recently by The Association of Former Students at Texas A&M which awarded him its Distinguished Teaching Award for the School of Public Health.
Each fall, The Association honors outstanding faculty members for their dedication to teaching. Recipients are recognized for their talent, expertise and devotion to conveying knowledge to students.
“In my current job I wear many hats and the one that is most important to me is that of a teacher,” Carrino said. “Winning the teaching award from The Association of Former Students is the most meaningful recognition that I could expect. I am very gratified and grateful to The Association and the students.”
Carrino’s work with students extends beyond the classroom. He currently serves as the coach for the Texas A&M Health CLARION Interprofessional Case Competition team. The team, which is made up of students from the School of Public Health, College of Medicine, College of Nursing and the Irma Lerma Rangel College of Pharmacy, recently won the national championship.
“Case competitions are one of the times during the academic year when a student can bring to bear all of those things that they learned and bundle them up all into one package,” Carrino said. “Plus, they are really fun.”
In previous national championship competitions under Carrino’s leadership, the team finished 17th and third before bringing home the top honor this time around.
“This year we had an exceptional team that came together, bonded quickly, worked diligently, took direction effortlessly and interprofessionally improved each other’s work,” Carrino said. “The product, which was a mix of clinical and population-based health intelligence and a little bit of creativity, won the national championship.”
Finding a new passion
Like many in public health, Carrino started with the goal of pursuing a career in medicine, completing his undergraduate degree in natural sciences from the University of Akron. Although medicine was his early passion, Carrino says what he perceived as being inefficiencies in the system caused him to rethink his career path.
Although he knew he would be helping people as a physician, he felt he could impact an even greater number of lives by turning to public health.
“I never felt that helping one person at a time was efficient enough, fast enough or good enough,” Carrino said. “The beauty of public health is that your efforts are multiplied by hundreds, thousands, millions. One good decision can affect millions of people.”
Public health in the spotlight
The current coronavirus pandemic has been an example of how decisions, both good and bad, can have an effect on millions of people.
“COVID, for the first time in my 30-year career, has made me feel like public health is relevant in the popular media,” Carrino said. “It is relevant to everybody’s life right now. It always has been, they just didn’t know it.”
The current pandemic has also had an effect on the number of people interested in public health careers. Although public health has always been an important discipline, it is one that wasn’t always top of mind for most people.
That has changed dramatically over the last year, and Carrino says the greater awareness of what public health is, and how it can be applied, has impacted the numbers the School of Public Health is dealing with.
“We are seeing record numbers of applications and we have received a record number of inquiries because, finally, people realize this is a growing field,” Carrino said. “Public health undergraduate programs, I believe, are some of the fastest growing programs in the country. At Texas A&M the last couple of years, the public health undergraduate program is the fastest growing program in the university. There is a reason for that.”
Carrino is hopeful that the increased interest in public health that is being seen at the university level will trickle down to the younger generations, giving them another career path to dream about and pursue.
“I hope that, unlike me, who didn’t even know what public health was, there is a little kid out there somewhere who says, ‘I want to grow up and be a public health professional,’” Carrino said. “Lots of kids say they want to grow up to be a doctor or a nurse or a pharmacist. Nobody says, ‘I want to grow up and be a public health professional.’ I hope now they do.”