EKU Seeks to Enhance Environmental Public Health in Underserved Areas

Eastern Kentucky University is seeking to attract more students from underrepresented populations and high-poverty areas into the growing field of environmental public health and then prepare them to work where their services are most needed.

The University has received a $246,934 federal grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Service Administration (HRSA), to launch the Kentucky Environmental Public Health Traineeships Program. Over a three-year period, EKU’s Master of Public Health-Environmental Health Science (MPH-EHS) program will place 42 of its students in local and state health departments in medically underserved regions of the U.S., particularly central Appalachia and Kentucky’s urban areas.

Because of a nationwide shortage of master’s-level environmental health science professionals, MPH-EHS graduates typically pursue opportunities in the private sector and public health agencies in more affluent communities, explained Dr. Jason Marion, project director and assistant professor of environmental health sciences at EKU. “The limited financial resources of health departments in Appalachia and some urban areas have made field placements in these communities difficult.”

MPH-EHS students at EKU currently complete a three-credit-hour field experience, in some cases unpaid. With funding from the grant, student trainees will obtain hands-on work experience working alongside environmental health professionals in health departments for nine weeks, meet their three-credit-hour requirement and receive $4,000 for the placement, “with the hope that the students gain a passion for continuing their service after graduation in a similar setting.

“By HRSA providing this program, student trainees will get to experience the type of rewarding work that is done at the local health department, and in many cases, be able to work in their home communities throughout urban and rural parts of Kentucky,” Marion said. “In return, the profession likely gains the addition of a person with local knowledge, who may gain a passion for public health that goes beyond the financial rewards of working for a large corporation. The additional $4,000 and, for the second and third years of the program, the addition of $750 per semester of classwork may help students who otherwise could not afford an MPH to come to EKU.”

To promote a culturally diverse and aware workforce, the program will give preference to trainees from central Appalachia, emphasizing recruitment of students from one of the nation’s five federally-designated Promise Zones, areas of persistent poverty identified by the White House.

“No similar program in the U.S. actively recruits for MPH-EHS students from the region,” Marion said. “We will also give preference in recruiting and selecting ethnically or racially diverse trainees for limited slots, specifically by selecting underrepresented students and enhancing recruitment among upperclassmen attending Kentucky State University and other historically black universities throughout the southeast and midwest.”

Many of the student trainees will be placed in health districts serving EKU’s 22-county primary service area, which includes some of the poorest counties in the U.S and is plagued by many of the health issues that often accompany poverty. “I am hopeful that, as we place more public health professionals in eastern Kentucky, more individuals and community leaders will realize the importance of the public health discipline for preventing disease and affording Kentuckians with a higher quality of life.

“In the nation’s healthiest communities,” Marion continued, “there has been a shift from emphasizing the need for more medical doctors to treat disease to a strategy that continues to recruit high-quality medical doctors and other medical professionals, while also embracing the one health concept that strongly emphasizes disease prevention through environmental health, health promotion and community health education. By increasing awareness of the value of disease prevention through public health, I am optimistic communities will work diligently to prioritize funding models and solicit funds for permanently placing our graduates in the local health departments with salaries that are a bit closer to the salaries in the communities and industries hiring our graduates.”

The job outlook for EHS professionals is rosy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts more than 13,000 new EHS positions by 2022 as well as more than 4,200 new occupational health and safety professionals. “Couple these 17,000 new positions with a substantial number of retirements and we see more jobs than the number of persons available to fill the positions,” Marion said.

 EKU received one of only 15 grants awarded by the HRSA to attract and train students in public health workforce shortage disciplines. Others went to nationally known institutions such as Indiana University, University of Georgia, Johns Hopkins University, University of Southern California, University of Arizona, University of North Carolina, Boston University and Texas A & M, among others.

“We are in good company among the other awardees,” Marion said. “I think our program quality, coupled with our size and strong orientation to serving our region and placing our students was very attractive to the grant reviewers. Our large undergraduate program, which is the largest of its kind east of the Mississippi River, enhances our reputation but, even more importantly, our outstanding faculty make the program stand out.”

The EKU Environmental Health Sciences faculty include the president of the National Environmental Health Association (Dr. Carolyn Harvey), the president of the Kentucky Association of Milk, Food and Environmental Sanitarians (Dr. Gary Brown) and a national Environmental Health Committee member with the National Association of County and City Health Officials (Dr. Sheila Pressley).

“Our strong ties with our local partners and the actual professionals in the field really made our program shine,” Marion said, “and all these things have bolstered our graduate program into also being relatively large compared to other schools that wrestle with recruiting and placing EHS graduates in non-academic and non-research positions.”

For more information about EKU’s Master of Public Health-Environmental Health Science Program, visit www.mph.eku.edu or call 859-622-7566.

Published on September 24, 2014

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