One of the results of the COVID pandemic is a rise in applications for public health studies, according to educators at two local institutions where undergraduate and graduate degrees are offered.
Catastrophic events have, historically, raised interest in career paths. According to the US Department of Defense, enlistment in the military increased by eight percent in the months following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. COVID is doing the same for public health studies programs.
Daemen College, based in Amherst, reports in the past year 845 applications have been submitted for fields including biology and pre-med, compared to 536 the year before - amounting to a 36-percent increase.
“We anticipated that coming out of this, with all the fervor, all of the emotion, all of the challenges associated with it, that people would not just want to sit on the sidelines and that people would want to be able to help,” said Dr. Greg Nayor, Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at Daemen.
At the University at Buffalo, 934 students applied for undergraduate studies in 2019. The following year, there were 998 applicants. This year, one year since the start of the pandemic, the university has received 1,219 applications, a 22-percent increase.
Dr. Sarahmona Przybala, Assistant Professor at UB in the School of Public Health and Health Professions and the Assistant Dean, and Director of Undergraduate Public Health Programs, says there was a recognition for a few years prior to the pandemic of the need to offer public health studies at the undergraduate level. And what the current pandemic provides is an education in the economic, social and structural impacts that many may not have thought about in previous medical crises.
“In many ways, when we think about infectious diseases or diseases that are contagious, we usually think about it with a lens that's about a medical problem. We use the medical model. We don't realize that there's this other profession, this other system that cooperates with the medical discipline, and in thinking about how we do response efforts,” Przybala said.
Johnathan Lim is a junior at UB, majoring in biostatistics with minors in math and public health. He says he was leaning towards economics and becoming a businessman after graduation. But then came the pandemic.
Lim much of the pandemic in his birthplace, Singapore. He has family living both there and in the United States. His mother is Taiwanese. During the pandemic, he's been observing how the US, Taiwan and Singapore have handled COVID and public spread.
“There's something to learn in every country. Sometimes they're good, sometimes they're bad,” Lim said. “Like for example in Singapore, the mask wearing is very important. But things like social distancing is not really enforced here. Not just because there is a very high population here, but it's because the country is so small. It's smaller than New York City.”
One of the ways mask wearing is enforced in Singapore, Lim notes, is a $300 fine if caught not wearing one outside the home.
UB graduate student Katherine Connelly is working on her master's degree in public health with the desire to pursue a PhD in epidemiology. She's also an intern at Mobile Primary Care. Connelly says through her previous work and study she gained a knowledge of the administrative nature of public health positions. What he continuing study has taught her is how policy affects public health.
"I really did not consider all of the legal implications," she said. "Prior to my public health (study), I knew about administration. I worked as a medical assistant and surgery technicians. So I knew there was all the administration and the bureaucracy there. But seeing that underlying health issues are predominantly caused by policies was mind blowing to me, and I immediately said, well why haven't we done anything?"
Public health does not necessarily require one become a physician, educators note. Connelly envisions herself addressing public policy and how it affects health, and hopes for an opportunity to work with an entity such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or with a state or local governmental health agency. She'd also like to focus her attention on undeserved populations, especially Native American communities.
“I'd really like to be moving around and addressing some population high risk groups here that we have," Connelly said. "A lot of barriers we have to healthcare access can be relatively easily corrected, as long as you've got a team of like-minded individuals.”
While there's raised interest in public health study, centers providing it also want to be sure they're producing individuals dedicated to working in it for the long term. Dr. Nayor at Daemen points out that while they've had a sharp uptick in applications, they currently enroll about 20 to 30 students. They plan to grow the program, but only very slowly.
“The ability to have a relatively small cohort allows us to find the people who really want to go into this field, who really want to make a difference, ensure that we are able to offer them a really positive experience, that they're not just one of 100 people, but that they get a very personalized attention, education and then a career path afterwards,” Dr. Nayor said.
Among the selling points local schools use to attract candidates is the proximity to renowned research centers on the Buffalo-Niagara Medical Campus. There's also a feeling of better job security.
"There's been an expectation over several years now of a decline in the public health workforce, primarily as a result of retirements happening. So when we think about local public health departments and state public health departments, there will continue to be need for employees because of just the the phasing out of the retiring of some of the public health workforce," Dr. Przybala said. "In addition, I think other community based partners, community based organizations, some that have a lens toward social equity or diversity, I think in particular will continue to have opportunities for employment for young people who are pursuing public health.
"I think there's also ways that we think about interprofessional collaboration. Maybe some social service agencies that might be interested in bringing on someone with a public health lens. Medical Systems, including hospitals and academic medical centers, will continue to want to have public health professionals as part of their workforce. Because it's not just one discipline that has all the answers. One of the beautiful things I like about public health is that I work with people who are trained in very different things. We all approach the problem a little bit differently, and we come together collectively to find an effective solution."