DrPH Program Thrives Online

(Chapel Hill, NC) — Can an accredited doctorate program from an established and respected public university be taught almost entirely online?

Faculty and staff in the School of Public Health’s Health Policy and Administration department at the University of North Carolina think so. The Doctoral Program in Health Leadership (DrPH) is halfway through its first year of classes and program officials are already calling it a success.

“The response to this program has been astounding,” said Dr. Edward Brooks, director of the program. “It has far exceeded our expectations.”

The original expectations called for a positive, but not overwhelming response from applicants of working healthcare professionals interested in taking their education to the next level while still keeping their current jobs. What Health Policy and Administration department officials found instead was a pent-up demand for their online doctorate program. Of the nine slots available for the first cohort of students, which started in the fall of 2005, 89 people applied.

“And these weren’t just average applicants or people who had no business applying to the program,” said Brooks. “Most of these people already had impressive healthcare resumes. It made our job of narrowing the list incredibly difficult.”

The response hasn’t let up either. For a similar number of slots for the class of 2006, almost 200 people have already applied.

Why the interest?

First, according to Brooks, the program is the first of its kind in the country. No other university or college currently offers a DrPH degree in health leadership via distance learning. Second, the program fits well with the lifestyle of many up-and-coming healthcare professionals, who are reluctant or simply unwilling to leave their current positions and take time off to pursue their doctorate degree.

Corinne Graffunder is a good example. The branch chief in the division of violence and prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) wanted to go back and get her doctorate. But she also had elementary school-age children, and if she pursued her degree it would mean having to move the whole family.

“I knew I had to do it while the kids were either in elementary school or had graduated high school, said Graffunder. “I didn’t want to have to move while the kids were in middle or high school.”

Enter distance learning. As a result of the technology used by the Health Policy and Administration, Graffunder and the other eight students interact with each other in a Hollywood Squares-format in which they all see each other at the same time and interact in real-time. While there was an initial learning technology and protocol learning curve, the students now agree that the format works well, allowing them the opportunity to interact and learn from each other.

“That’s an important ingredient,” said Brooks. “We purposely chose a diverse group of working professionals so that they could all gain important insights into health policy and leadership from each other. For example, one of our students is a national writer who covers healthcare. His insights can be vastly different than someone else who is director of patient care services for maternal and child health at two large hospitals in New York City.”

Will other colleges and universities jump on the bandwagon now that the program has “legs?” Brooks welcomes the competition. The former associate provost and long-time health policy and administration faculty member says the need to train the next generation of public health and healthcare leaders far outstrips the number of degree programs readily available.

“The reality is – distance learning programs may be the only way for this country to adequately meet our future healthcare leadership needs,” said Brooks. “People are just not going to leave their jobs anymore to get a doctorate degree, and so colleges and universities are going to have to bring the education to them or it’s not going to happen. Nothing would delight me more than seeing other colleges begin offering DrPH in Health Leadership programs online at their schools. That would be wonderful, not only for the students and the school, but for the society as a whole.”

For more information, contact Gene Pinder at gpinder@email.unc.edu or (919) 966-9756.