Program aims to enhance public health

February 21, 2011

Texas A&M, a leader in academic excellence and innovation, has solidified its role in the commitment to bettering the overall health of society with progress made by Texas A&M School of Rural Public Health.

“From water-treatment programs to HIV initiatives and workplace safety, public health professionals are incrementally changing the way the world functions, incorporating wellness principles and improving, or even saving lives,” said Kathryn Bennett, a public health graduate student. “Public health is thus incredibly important because it addresses these primary determinants of health: genetics, lifestyle, environment and availability of health care.”

However, those in favor of recognizing the value of public health are not negating the importance of clinical medicine. Dr. Craig Blakely, dean of the School of Rural Public Health, said the school has great working relationships with other institutions in the Texas A&M Health Science Center. Blakely said this communication fosters a greater sense of good health now that those in clinical medicine are advocating for the prevention of health issues.

The purpose of public health is to implement better quality of life for all people; not to simply rely on medication or surgery as a means for regaining one’s health, but to find ways one can prevent illness.

Blakely said there are fewer costs and a bigger impact with public health. For example, cleaning up the environment or relinquishing bad habits, such as smoking, go a long way in improving one’s health.

Gains in life expectancy and decreases in the mortality rate are two of the best indicators of health status. Texas A&M’s School of Rural Public Health is working on just that.

Dr. Joseph Sharkey, professor in the department of social and behavioral health, is researching issues related to nutrition and health disparities. This research focuses on challenges regarding food choices such as food access, including proximity to stores, lack of public transportation, as well as financial resources In some areas, the closest food resource is a convenience store, a fuel station or a dollar store.

These are major types of venues for cheaper food, canned food — basically, food that Sharkey said does not promote good health in an individual. Environmental influences also play a large role in public health .

Sharkey said educating an individual and expecting them to do better is no longer a viable option. Additional factors must come into play. If a citizen lives a long distance from a store, lacks refrigeration capabilities or lives in an area of crime, finding quality food can be a significant hardship and thus a hurdle to obtaining good health.

Sharkey said working closely with the community is far more effective than simply entering an area, collecting data, then leaving. Along with faculty and students from the School of Rural Public Health, he has undertaken several projects within the communities of south Texas.

One was a Christmas project in which children from rural communities were asked what they wanted for Christmas, and faculty members and students each sponsored a child.

Sharkey said community involvement is crucial in the promotion of public health. Most families in this area are hesitant to accept outsiders who want to get involved in their daily lives. However, with projects such as the Christmas event, members of the community are far more responsive and more goals can be reached, Sharkey said.

Furthermore, educating those interested in a career dedicated to public health is a primary initiative taken by the School of Rural Public Health.

“Our students enter with a strong commitment to improving the health and well-being of others. They put off entering the job market to improve their skills, marketability and impact on their communities and the world by adding to their undergraduate education. As a faculty member, this dedication to purpose and a cause greater than themselves is inspiring,” said Dr. Mark Benden, professor in the department of environmental and occupational health.

It is often said students are significant indicators of the progress of an institution, and the School of Rural Public Health facilitates the active involvement of all students in research activities.

Part of what sets Texas A&M’s School of Rural Health from other such schools is its small size and the value placed upon student involvement. The school is able to facilitate stronger relationships between students and professors, and this can be tremendous in developing a student’s potential.

Blakely said students were invited to a speaking event regarding the Gulf oil spill. This event allowed to students to get a grasp on what really happened and how to prevent similar incidences in the future.

“Where I hope we are headed is towards more wellness and healthcare and less ‘sickcare,'” Benden said. “What I mean by that is that for the most part, our current research and medical emphasis in dollars and people is focused on fixing people after they break. In the future, we should be more focused on prevention and wellness to minimize the need for so much intervention.”

— Rae Lynn Mitchell