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Should public health be part of core college curriculum?

COVID-19 pandemic sheds light on need for wider public knowledge of diseases and their spread

“You can get it by touching a contaminated surface and then rubbing your eyes and mouth.” “You can get it through droplets produced by an infected individual.” “You can get it from swimming in a pool.” When it comes to COVID-19 the public has heard every possible—and not so possible—way to become infected with the coronavirus.

The amount of information circling daily concerning the pandemic has shed light on the lack of knowledge the general public possesses about how diseases spread and how they can be contained.

A paper co-authored by Jay Maddock, PhD, FAAHB, professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Texas A&M School of Public Health, delves into the question of whether public health literacy should be a core requirement for college students.

The paper by Maddock, and his co-author Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS, FACSM, from the Wake Forest School of Medicine, was recently published in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice.

“The entire world has received a crash course in public health over the past few months.  Unfortunately, the instructors have ranged from Dr. Fauci to someone who didn’t know what an epi curve was in January,” Maddock said.

Aside from what students learn during health class, Maddock and Moore state that from kindergarten through college it is highly unlikely that an individual will receive any training in public health.

According to the paper, there are 63 schools of public health, 125 programs and 16 stand-alone baccalaureate programs across higher education in the United States. There are 5,000 universities in the United States, but only about 200 offer an accredited public health program. For comparison, Maddock and his colleague noted that there are more than 4,300 colleges and universities that offer a degree in psychology.

The researchers also pointed out that even in those universities that offer a public health program, most students who are not public health majors or minors do not take a public health class, leading to the vast majority of the population being public health illiterate.

Though public health touches numerous fields—engineering, architecture, agriculture, business, law and many other disciplines—and the number of undergraduate public health programs has expanded, public health is still seen as a noncore discipline.

“Universities have tended to think of public health as an applied discipline,” Maddock said. “The last few months have made it clear that public health affects everyone’s life and a knowledgeable population can help improve the health of their communities.”

So how can this be reversed?

According to Maddock and Moore, the first step is getting buy-in from the presidents and provosts of the colleges to make a public health course part of the core curriculum for future students. Once this is accomplished, faculty from schools and programs of public health would need to train faculty members at community colleges and universities throughout the country.

To do this, the researchers suggest setting up academies across the country to train faculty to teach the course and provide state-of-the-art lectures and materials.

The increased number of faculty members trained in teaching public health courses would lead to greater availability, helping to expand the opportunities for the public to become more knowledgeable with regard to diseases and their spread.

Although this will not be easy, Maddock and Moore state that working toward this goal during the current pandemic may be the perfect time.

“While the public is more knowledgeable today than it was a few months ago about social distancing, quarantine, health disparities and the epi curve, this knowledge can fade fast,” Maddock said. “For example, the majority of freshman coming to college in the fall were born after September 11, 2001 and remember the events of that day as history, not a lived experience. That will happen with the COVID-19 pandemic, too.”

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