DeAnn Ryberg’s first exposure to public health was as a health educator in the Peace Corps.
“It opened up my perspective on what constitutes health and how we can work to enhance conditions of health outside of the health care system, and work on some of those underlying conditions of health,” said Ryberg, who now serves as deputy director of El Paso County Public Health.
Ryberg earned a master’s in public health from Tulane University, and over the course of her 20-year career has worked on public health issues ranging from maternal and child health to the Ebola epidemic and the aftermath of hurricanes.
“What’s held my interest is that we get to work on so many different issues and fundamental opportunities to help improve conditions and communities and the health of a population,” she said.
Now, with COVID-19, public health professionals are in the spotlight as never before, and students at colleges and universities throughout the nation are showing increased interest in courses of study that could lead to public health careers.
Growing enrollment in public health programs is part of a nationwide trend that has manifested since the pandemic began. It’s also part of an overall growing interest in health care careers.
According to a report released Nov. 17 by the Associated Press, applications for master’s programs in public health at more than 100 schools throughout the nation that use a common application form increased 20 percent for the current academic year. Students can send a single application form to any schools that participate in that program.
No Colorado Springs-area schools offer a master’s in public health, but UCCS offers a four-year degree in health promotion, and students can go on to earn a master’s in public health at the three campuses that comprise the Colorado School of Public Health.
“We have students that are looking at a four-year degree in health and wellness promotion, and they are interested in changing the social-psychological movements behind behavior,” said Dr. Jackie Berning, chair of the Health Sciences Department at UCCS.
“That’s kind of what’s happening right now with this pandemic — to get people to understand why you need to wear masks, why you have to have 6-foot distancing and why you can’t gather all together,” Berning said.
The jobs they’ll seek
UCCS offers an MSc in health promotion that prepares students for careers in a variety of health settings, including health education, health coaching and public health.
About 90 students currently are involved in the program, Berning said.
These students take core courses including health behavior change and theory, community health promotion, program planning, health coaching, research and statistical design. They may also take elective courses in such areas as social marketing, epidemiology, organizational management and grant writing.
Graduates are prepared for leadership roles in designing, implementing and evaluating health promotion programs in public agencies and private organizations that focus on improving community or organizational health and wellness.
Among the jobs they do at public health agencies is planning health promotion campaigns such as conveying messages about slowing the spread of COVID-19.
“They’re looking for people with health coaching backgrounds for contact tracing,” Berning said. “They’re looking for people to coordinate public health programs. These are job openings around southern Colorado now.”
Berning said data has not yet been pulled out that would show exactly how many students have been applying for the next health promotion cohort, which will enter UCCS next fall, but indicated that applications for all health care fields have been increasing.
“People want to get involved because they feel that they can provide a profession that will help all of these people who have gotten COVID or become hospitalized or who need physical therapy or who need respiratory therapy,” she said.
UCCS is seeing a particular increase in interest in nursing, said Dr. Deborah Pollard, associate dean for academic affairs and operations and department chair for nursing and health sciences at the Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Beth-El College of Nursing and Health Sciences.
All students take a course in public health nursing that includes both classroom instruction and clinical experience, but “the majority seek employment in a clinical setting rather than in public health,” Pollard said.
There has also been interest in a new elective course on emergency preparedness.
“We did see that class fill up in the fall semester,” she said. “It prepares nurses to understand all of the concepts required in emergencies, whether it be hurricanes or COVID, on how the community responds from a public health perspective.”
Students also rotate through other community health experiences, such as caring for pregnant women and new mothers and working with the homeless, that increase their awareness of community public health needs.
Colorado College does not have a public health major but does have a global health minor as well as a prehealth track, said Jane Byrnes, health professions advising manager, who works with prospective and current students and alumni who are applying to health profession programs.
A few students create their own majors in a way that could lead to a public health career, and a major in sociology also relates well to an advanced public health degree, Byrnes said.
Students were already showing increased interest in health careers before the pandemic, since health professionals are in great demand and can command good salaries, she said.
“Students at CC are focusing more on professional careers to provide health care,” she said. “About 15 percent of our students end up going into health occupations. I see more of an increase in people who want to be a doctor or find a vaccine.”
Some students from local schools do go on to the Colorado School of Public Health to earn a master’s of public health or another advanced degree.
The Colorado School of Public Health is one of the most unusual in the country. It is a collaboration among three institutions: the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, Colorado State University in Fort Collins and the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley.
The master of public health degree, typically earned in two years, is offered at all three campuses. A master of science degree, as well as a doctorate in public health and Ph.D., nondegree programs and certificates are offered at CU Anschutz.
“I can’t say we have done an assessment regarding the reasons, but we are seeing an uptick in the number of students applying and coming into the master of public health program,” said Dr. Danielle Brittain, associate dean for academic and student affairs at the Colorado School of Public Health.
Brittain is aware, though, that student interest in public health across the country has grown with the pandemic.
Students focus their work in five main areas of study — community and behavioral health, epidemiology, biostatistics, environmental and occupational health, and health systems management and policy.
“A lot of people are interested in epidemiology because they’re seeing the pandemic play out and trying to understand causes and mechanisms of spread for infectious disease like COVID-19,” Brittain said. “Chronic disease also is important from an epidemiologic perspective.”
Other students are interested in studying how diseases like COVID-19 are distributed among the population and may pursue a biostatistics focus.
“We also have people focusing on systems and policies related to preparedness and how we’re responding to the pandemic,” she said. “Also, students are interested in getting into communities and working on developing programs and policies to make changes to improve health. And finally, we’re seeing, with the pandemic, how the environment has impacted human health.”
About 650 students currently are studying at the school, which graduates from 225 to 260 graduates each year.
“When students do get a degree in public health, they’re getting jobs,” Brittain said. “There’s quite a range where our students can work, depending upon their discipline.”
Some are joining public health agencies; others work in academic settings, at nonprofits or as consultants in the public and private sectors.
PUBLIC HEALTH CAREERS
Public health careers are garnering more attention because of the pandemic, said Ryberg.
Public Health has added about 40 people since the onset of the pandemic and now has more than 200 full-time employees, plus a contracted workforce.
“One area of public health that we have developed locally and has really made a difference in our response was our public health data analytics team,” Ryberg said.
Formed within the past two years, the team made it possible for Public Health to put into operation a COVID data dashboard to help staff and the public gain a better understanding of the disease.
“Data is certainly at the core of public health,” Ryberg said. “That is an area where I think we will continue to see a need for public health capacity.”
Of course, nurses and dietitians form a part of the staff, but so also do behavioral health specialists, whose work is a growing emphasis in public health; as well as epidemiologists, environmental health specialists and people with business and administrative experience.
“It’s the blend of all these skill sets that helps us to have a strong agency,” Ryberg said.
While many students contemplating a health care career look toward diagnosing and treating patients, “most people enter a public health career because they have a specific interest in serving their community,” Ryberg said.
“One of the things that interests me about a career in public health versus some of the direct medical services is that the modifiable influences of health as an outcome, about 10 to 20 percent of that is influenced by traditional medical care,” she said. “The vast majority of other modifiable factors come down to what we call social determinants of health — the more upstream measures that influence population health.
“So I think that’s the exciting opportunity for people considering a career in public health. They get to influence the factors of health before individuals are even engaged in treating illness.”
A unique aspect of the pandemic is that it has created awareness of the need for greater public health infrastructure, Ryberg said.
“The wonderful thing about the increased interest in public health as a career is that we can have that future staffing and infrastructure that is essential to continue this work,” she said.