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Wingate exploring grad, undergrad programs in public health

by Luanne Williams

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, most people gave little thought to the role of public health professionals. But that’s changed as the science of protecting and improving the health of populations has taken center stage. This growing career was already on the radar of Wingate University officials, who are exploring the addition of a two-year online Master’s in Public Health program and a new Bachelor of Science in Public Health degree, with an eye toward launching them next year.

Dr. Laura Happe

Associate Professor of Pharmacy Laura Happe, PharmD, MPH, and Suzanne Wolf, MS PAS, PA-C, Assistant Professor of Physician Assistant Studies, championed the idea with a presentation to colleagues last July. Last month, the University’s Board of Trustees’ Executive Committee gave its unanimous approval.

“Part of our vision as a University is to align talent, resources and expertise with student learning opportunities to improve the human condition,” says Wingate University President Dr. Rhett Brown. “I can’t imagine a better choice for our fifth health science graduate degree program than public health. And providing the bachelor’s degree, as is our hope, will give students even more options.”

Taking the lead in healthcare education in western North Carolina, Wingate already offers doctoral degrees in pharmacy, physical therapy and occupational therapy, a master’s in physician assistant studies and a bachelor of science in nursing. Happe and Wolf say that if the University is able to add the two new programs, they will complement existing offerings and create new career pathways toward jobs increasingly in demand. 

Dr. Suzanne Wolf

“Our hope is that there will really be endless possibilities for dual degrees; it will be a huge leverage point for both undergraduate and graduate students,” Wolf says. “And the timing of this is significant, the way it lined up with the natural happenings of COVID-19.”

Two former federal public health officials just called on Congress to allocate $12 billion for states to hire 180,000 new public health workers as part of a $46 billion investment into public health. A former head of the Centers for Disease Control says the country needs 300,000 contact tracers for the COVID-19 effort alone. And the CDC has announced plans to double the number of public health officials it has working with state health agencies to contain the virus.

Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted 11 percent growth in the number of health educators and community health workers from 2018 to 2028, a rate much higher than the average for all occupations.

“Public health has historically been underfunded, but this pandemic is changing our focus,” says Happe, who holds an MPH in addition to her doctor of pharmacy degree. In addition to positions in health departments and hospitals, Wolf says public health professionals can find work in community nonprofits, corporate wellness programs and insurance companies, among other organizations.

Both see the field as attractive to a variety of students, especially those drawn to Wingate’s "faith, knowledge, service” motto.

College students teach elementary students at a health fair.

“I am so glad we are exploring these paths for people who are interested in health or healthcare but don’t like blood or touching people, for those who say, ‘Health is interesting, but I don’t want to be a doctor,’ or ‘I don’t want to take all that chemistry and biology,’” Happe says. “It can be a very altruistic and fulfilling role, for the greater good of humanity.”

The potential programs will also be a good fit for analytical thinkers and students who enjoy teaching but don’t necessarily want to land in a traditional classroom. Students who earn their B.S. in public health would be eligible to sit for the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) exam. Degrees in public health can also prepare students for careers as epidemiologists, biostatisticians, environmental health specialists and laboratory workers.

A college student explains and hands out over-the-counter medications to people at a health fair.

Wingate plans to build a bachelor’s program that will feature an interdisciplinary approach with an emphasis on the social sciences and statistics. Discipline-specific courses being explored include Principles of Public Health, Epidemiology, Health Promotion & Statistics, Environmental Health, Healthcare Management and Professional Ethics. Classes would be taught by graduate health sciences professors and undergraduate liberal arts faculty, and the program will be designed to meet criteria established by the Council for Public Health.

To smooth the pathway toward the master’s degree, Wingate is exploring the development of a 4+1 track whereby qualified students could take a combination of undergrad and graduate courses during their fourth year and graduate with their MPH in a total of five years. Happe says abbreviated pathways are also being explored for Wingate’s physician assistant, pharmacy, occupational therapy and physical therapy students so that they could potentially add an MPH without spending two more years in the classroom.

Both public health degrees would require internships or special capstone projects to be completed in conjunction with community organizations.

Although the programs are still in the exploration stages, university officials hope to have them underway by fall 2021.

May 18, 2020

  • Health Sciences