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Connecting Public Health Education and Practice

National Public Health Week is April 6-12, 2015

By Nichole Stevens

Academic Public Health Thumbnail-2In the 2013-14 academic year, 227 students contributed 7,561 hours to apply academic preparation in a public health practice setting at the local county health department.

“For me, making a difference means finding the right student at the right time to match with the best opportunity with the greatest need,” said Julie Grubaugh, Academic Health Department (AHD) coordinator. “The ultimate purpose of the AHD is to improve community health.”

Students from a broad variety of disciplines, clinical and nonclinical (Child and Family Studies, Communication, Kinesiology, Law, Nutrition, Nursing, Pharmacy, Philosophy, Pre-dental, Pre-med, Public Health, Sociology and Social Work) pursue education and practice in public health through the Academic Health Department, a formalized partnership between the University of Tennessee and the Knox County Health Department (KCHD).

“Many students who’ve completed experiences at the health department have been inspired to pursue graduate education in public health, or careers in public health at the local, state or federal level,” Grubaugh said.

Recent examples of student projects at KCHD include Quality of Life surveys, development of healthy relationships/decision-making camp for boys, rabies and dog bite prevention education for Hispanic youths, and contributions to Start Smart and car seat education classes.

For over 40 years, UT’s Department of Public Health and the Knox County Health Department have collaborated together on an informal basis, but with their recent formal memorandum of agreement, they have increased the level of commitment and scope of partnering.

“I feel that my internship experiences provided the perfect introduction to the public health field.” – Michael Dinwiddie, UT Sociology undergraduate student

UT students are able to volunteer, complete class projects and internships. In some cases, such activities have served as a springboard for employment. The AHD is the first formalized partnership of its kind in Tennessee and serves as a national model for other academic health departments. The partners utilize a shared coordinator who serves to implement initiatives to promote and advance the teaching, service, and research mission of academia, as well as KCHD’s vision of “every person, a healthy person.”

“I think what many academic disciplines are challenged with is the disconnect, or the gap, that exists between what goes on in the classroom and what goes on in the practice setting, or the workforce,” said Grubaugh. “The AHD provides a formalized way to bridge that gap.”

Grubaugh said what appeals to her about AHD is that it’s not just a one-time, ‘let’s see what’s in it for me’ deal, but it is a mutual two-way relationship with a commitment to sharing resources for the benefit of public health.

“I have learned that academia and the practice community function in different cultures and are responsible for different priorities. Therefore the challenge is finding the common ground, as well as the gaps in the connecting academia to practice,” said Grubaugh.

The AHD uses a three-prong approach to bridging academia and public health practice, which meets the needs of students and faculty, as well as the KCHD, and most importantly, the community. The first is “Student Education and Practice Informed Teaching,” where students and faculty, with guidance from KCHD staff, are able to increase the capacity of the health department’s programs and services and initiatives through volunteering, internships, and service-learning courses. The second prong is “Workforce Development,” to assure that members of the public health workforce have the skills, knowledge and expertise they need to do their jobs. Last but not least is, “Practice-focused Research,” which is an important part of the partnership and, according to Grubaugh, is one of the hardest things to do and to do well.


Photo by Nichole Stevens

“A key to our (AHD) success is having strong committed leadership from UT Department of Public Health and KCHD,” said Grubaugh.

In increasing capacity through the student and faculty interactions, the AHD promotes workforce development opportunities, trainings, attendance at conferences, and practice-based research, which is a joint endeavor, where the research question originates at the health department.

The Academic Health Care partnership represents a model of equal partnership, in which expertise, information and resources flow both ways. “That is what really sets up apart,” said Grubaugh, in describing a deliberate move from one-way outreach to the mutuality of community engagement. “Yes, academia has expertise, but so does the practice setting. There is an equal partnership recognizing each has things to learn from each other.”

Academic Health Department was nominated as a Partnership that Makes a Difference. Click here to read more.