October 8, 2018

Meeting a pressing need for public health professionals in western North Carolina

The idea behind the new UNC Gillings MPH Program in Asheville is simple,” says Travis Johnson, MD, MPH, assistant professor in the Gillings School’s Public Health Leadership Program and interim director of the MPH in Asheville, North Carolina. “We admire the Gillings School’s master’s program, and we wanted to make it happen here, to draw people to learn and live in western North Carolina – and hopefully to stay and work here, where they are needed, after they graduate.”

Dr. Travis Johnson (right), interim director of the Asheville MPH program, poses with Drs. Ameena Batada (left) and Amy Lanou, consultants and instructors in the program.

Dr. Travis Johnson (right), interim director of the Asheville MPH program, poses with Drs. Ameena Batada (left) and Amy Lanou, consultants and instructors in the program.

The residential program employs a hybrid format that combines online tools with weekly face-to-face classes, held at UNC Asheville and the Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC). The degree’s format enables working professionals to hone their public health leadership skills with Gillings School and UNC Asheville faculty members and community health practitioners.

One of the drivers of the program is Jeff Heck, MD, chief executive officer of MAHEC. A health innovator who brought a satellite program of UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine to Asheville, Heck spearheaded a campaign to open a UNC Health Sciences Campus to improve health in the western part of the state.

“Western North Carolina is an area of great need,” Heck says. “Many counties are affected by shortages of health care providers, jobs and social services. The collaboration with nationally ranked UNC-Chapel Hill programs in health brings quality education to this part of the state at a lower cost to our students.”

Heck also notes that to succeed in value-based care, providers must develop an innovative, interdisciplinary and community-based focus.

“Gillings School leaders will help train the current and future workforce to address the social determinants of health – for example, housing, transportation and child care – which have profound impact upon health care outcomes,” he says.

Johnson, who also is an attending physician at MAHEC and affiliate professor at UNC Asheville, says he and other program planners were inspired by the Gillings School’s mission – to improve public health, promote individual well-being and eliminate health inequities across North Carolina and around the world – and by the School’s philosophy of “local is global,” the notion that the same principles promote health equity in western North Carolina as in rural areas of other countries.

He praises collaborative relationships with Gillings School faculty and staff members, including Todd Nicolet, PhD, vice dean, Anna Schenck, PhD, Professor of the Practice and director of the Public Health Leadership Program, Laura Linnan, ScD, senior associate dean for academic and student affairs, the core instructors in the Chapel Hill program, “and of course, Dean Barbara Rimer, who has championed this effort from the beginning.”

Johnson notes three particularly exciting elements of the collaboration – a place-based approach, practicality and potential impact.

“Place-based education nurtures a student’s passion to care for his or her community, moving them from being a passive observer to an engaged community member,” Johnson says. “The practicality has to do with three excellent institutions coming together and drawing the best from each. As to impact – I’m overjoyed to think about the impact graduates of this innovative program and their projects can have on community health in western North Carolina.”

Two leading consultants for the program are Amy Lanou, PhD, professor and chair, and Ameena Batada, DrPH, associate professor, both in UNC Asheville’s Department of Health and Wellness. Lanou also serves as executive director of the North Carolina Center for Health and Wellness. Batada also teaches this fall’s Methods and Measures course in the MPH program.

This is a map of the state of North Carolina.“This fall’s program takes the best aspects of the Gillings School’s online program, MPH@UNC, and offers in-person time that provides personalized teaching and support,” Batada says. “It will allow students to work while studying and will allow our first cohort, of about 15, to learn from other health professionals here in western North Carolina.”

Batada says she knows many students and alumni of UNC Asheville’s health and wellness program will be interested in the Asheville-based MPH program.

“Like many other health professionals working in the Mission Health hospital system and other organizations, our students and alumni see the value of understanding public health issues, data analytics, and community health program planning and evaluation,” she says.

Lanou, who will teach Nutrition Policy, says it has been rewarding to work with MAHEC and the Gillings School.

“It has been a treat to see UNC Asheville ‘at the table’ in these discussions,” she says, “and to experience enthusiastic engagement from everyone involved to develop a strong, rural-focused MPH program that will benefit the western part of our state.”

Sarah Thach, MPH, a Gillings School health behavior alumna, is MAHEC’s interim associate director for community partnerships. In that role, she develops practicum opportunities for the new MPH students.

“People have clamored for this MPH program for decades,” Thach says. “It meets a pressing need for people working in public health jobs in the Asheville area who want to earn a master’s degree without leaving their jobs or uprooting their families. Given that we have a rich history of regional hospital collaboration and a long history of MAHEC’s and UNCA’s engagement in community health initiatives, western North Carolina provides fertile ground for new Gillings School research interventions.”

—Linda Kastleman

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Carolina Public Health is a publication of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health. To view previous issues, please visit sph.unc.edu/cph.