Workforce Development: In the Classroom and Beyond

June 7, 2013
David Lakey, M.D.

Dr. Lakey congratulating a graduate

During recent commencement exercises, the Texas A&M Health Science Center (TAMHSC) School of Rural Health celebrated awarding a graduate degree to its 1,000th student since opening in 1999.

Reaching such a milestone in a relatively short period of time was made possible in part because of the school’s innovative approach to education that isn’t bound by geography. Long before online degrees were possible, the TAMHSC-School of Rural Public Health began offering graduate training throughout Texas via distance education, and since 2004 has continually had a cohort of students in Austin.

“Only 20 percent of the public health workforce in the state has formal training, so we began reaching out to improve the workforce soon after we opened the doors of the school,” said Interim Dean Jim Burdine, Dr.P.H. “We quickly learned that there was great interest to obtain knowledge and skills in public health, but individuals could not do so because they were job- and family-bound to their communities.”

Having identified the importance of flexible schedules and locations, the school developed distinctive programs that addressed the unique needs of public health students. Distance education courses are offered in the evenings twice a week in Temple, Austin and McAllen, and the master’s degree program can be completed part-time in three years. Today, instruction is delivered through a variety of methods including web courses, live courses taught onsite, as well as courses taught in College Station and connected to remote sites via video conference. These non-traditional approaches have allowed for the establishment of student cohorts in Tyler, Temple, Mt. Pleasant, Marshall, Lufkin, Corpus Christi, Laredo, Kingsville, and at the TAMHSC-School of Rural Public Health’s second campus in McAllen. Additionally, TAMHSC-School of Rural Public Health is the only school of public health offering degree programs at the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) in Austin.

David Lakey, M.D., commissioner of DSHS and this year’s speaker at TAMHSC-School of School of Rural Public Health’s commencement ceremony, is supportive of the program, and showed his appreciation to each graduate from DSHS by standing and shaking their hands as they walked across the stage to receive their diplomas.

“The M.P.H. is an application-oriented program with a diverse faculty that offers you real-life experiences in public health, health policy and health care administration,” said Jeff Hayes, who graduated with the Austin cohort. “They provide you the opportunities to use their experiences to learn and apply them in your coursework and, ultimately, in the field of public health.”

In efforts to address the lack of access to formal training referenced by Burdine, the school offers various continuing education opportunities to support the professional development of the public health workforce. For example, over the past five years the school has been competitively selected by the U.S. Army Medical Department to provide continuing education public health training to military personnel in the Department of Preventive Health Services Principles in the Army Preventive Medicine program at Ft. Sam in San Antonio, Texas. Also, the U.S.A. Center for Rural Public Health Preparedness offers education and training activities on a variety of public health issues. In the last project year, the U.S.A. Center provided education and training or education resources to 206 of the 254 Texas counties.

— Rae Lynn Mitchell

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