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Silver line to Covid cloud: More students want degrees in public health

New Delhi: The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a greater interest among students in pursuing public health programmes, a report by the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH) reveals. 

The Washington DC based ASPPH is an international academic body of public health, which has 135 members, including prominent graduate schools of public health, public health programmes and associate programmes as its members from six countries — China, Lebanon, Grenada, Mexico, Taiwan and the United States. 

According to the report, released by the ASPPH in September 2021, the applications to graduate level public health programmes globally saw a 40 per cent increase from March 2020 to March 2021. While in March 2020, the number of applications were 17,353, the numbers went up to 24,176 in March 2021. The data was derived from ASPPH’s centralised application service SOPHAS, a single window application system that allows students to apply to master’s and doctoral public health degrees in multiple institutions at the same time. 

While there is no consolidated data available for Indian institutes, individual health experts ThePrint spoke to said that public health as a subject has caught on with academics and researchers in India as well during the pandemic. 

There are diploma, bachelor’s degree and doctoral programmes in public health available both in India and internationally. The most sought after programme, however, is the Masters in Public Health (MPH) programme.

According to the ASPPH report, the maximum number of applications globally were for the MPH programmes across all member institutions. The top areas of interest in public health were epidemiology, general public health, health education/behavioural sciences and health policy and management. 

MPH is a multidisciplinary programme which not only teaches public health management to students, but also the economics, policy aspects and biostatistics that are part of it. 

Some of the prominent institutes that are members of the ASPPH are Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston University School of Public Health and Brown University School of Public Health, among others. 

Also read: How COVID gave African countries the opportunity to improve public health

What the schools say

Some of the schools also confirmed increased interest in their public health programmes. Clare Norton, MSEd, associate dean for Enrollment Management, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, told ThePrint, “Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health has seen a double digit increase in applications (more than 32 per cent for all our programmes), as have schools of public health nationally.” 

Norton attributes the increase partially to the ‘Fauci effect’— increased student applications to medical and public health schools inspired by chief medical advisor to the US president Dr Anthony Fauci’s prominence in the control of the Covid pandemic — and partially to the economy. He also sees the rise as attributable in part to the fact that people had decided they wanted to go back to school after months of stay-at-home orders. 

The school’s official communication office informed that they are seeing roughly the same applications for Fall 2022, which means the very high levels of interest continue.

Similarly, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health also noted a similar trend of their applications going up last year. In an email sent out to select academics in February last year, the school said that their applications have gone up by 80 per cent in 2021. ThePrint has seen a copy of the email. 

ThePrint wrote a detailed email to the communications department of Johns Hopkins on 4 January, to ask for the same information, but there was no response till the time of publishing this report. 

According to an article published on the official website of Brown University in March 2021, the MPH programme received 948 applications, compared to 437 at this time the previous year (March 2020) — an increase of 116 per cent. 

According to the article, dean, School of Public Health, Brown University, Ashish K. Jha, believed that the interest in the MPH programme can be due to three primary factors: “the global health emergency, the school’s long-standing focus on the importance of public health and the high visibility of the work of Brown’s public health and medicine scholars.” 

Public Health education in India 

Public health education in India is not very widespread, with only a handful of institutes offering the MPH programme. The Indian Institutes of Public Health (IIPH), that are under the privately run Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), are some of the premier institutes offering MPH in India. There are five IIPHs in India currently, in Gandhinagar, Delhi, Hyderabad, Bhubaneswar and Shillong. 

Apart from these, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, and Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Sciences and Technology, Trivandrum, also offer the MPH programme. Indian Institute of Health Management and Research, with branches in Delhi, Jaipur and Bangalore, offers other courses in public health.

Other than these institutes, medical education institutions like AIIMS have an option in public health courses, which is only offered to doctors. 

For pursuing an MPH from institutes like IIPH, however, one does not need to have a doctor’s degree. 

‘More awareness needed towards public health’

Speaking about the scope of public health education in India, Dileep Mavalankar, director, IIPH Gandhinagar, told ThePrint, “We used to see about 250 applications for our MPH programme earlier, but post pandemic, we have been witnessing 500 or so applications and much better quality applications. So, definitely, there is an increased interest among students in India towards pursuing public health.” 

He added that greater awareness from both policymakers and academics is needed towards public health. “Why India is still lagging behind in terms of the sheer volume of public health courses and applicants is because there needs to be more awareness towards the programme. The pandemic has given some impetus to it,” said Mavalankar. 

Public health expert and former CEO, National Health Authority of India (NHAI), Indu Bhushan, also believes that interest in public health in India is on the rise and will grow in the coming years. 

“I can see indicative changes that point towards an increased interest in public health in India…like increased demand for public health experts after the pandemic. I feel and I hope that good minds will join public health programmes in the near future. In the next five years, demand for public health professionals will grow,” Bhushan said. 

Talking about the fields with increased interest, he said, “In general, people are likely to be more interested in epidemiology, but public health management is also an area where interest is expected.” 

(Edited by Saikat Niyogi) 

Also read: Time to move past test-track-treat as Omicron officially at community transmission, say experts

Source: The Print

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