MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – While the world has been focused on COVID-19 as a health crisis, individual communities may have other specific health concerns that need attention.

The West Virginia University School of Public Health plans on addressing community-specific concerns through its new population health program. Population health, which integrates healthcare and public health practices, is an emerging healthcare field that allows professionals to identify a locally pressing health issue, intervene and transform the community’s health outcomes. 

Erik Carlton (WVU Photo)

 It’s a lot of things. It’s analytics. It’s health management. It’s putting in systems and structures that allow us to address health issues more holistically and broadly, but in targeted ways, right? So, it’s not just saying, you know, public health is the entire community right now, right? And everybody is understanding the impact of public health related to COVID. But, if you think about specific populations like mothers, expectant mothers, is a specific population, right? You can get even more drilled down to, you know, expectant mothers of a specific race or ethnicity. And so, what population health is, is identifying populations and health issues and working within those things to improve health outcomes while, you know, reducing costs and improving quality of healthcare. 

Erik Carlton – Associate Dean of Professional Programs and Graduate Studies, WVU School of Public Health

Carlton said WVU’s new Master of Science in Population Health program—one of only seven of its kind being offered by a CEPH-accredited school —is designed to prepare graduates for occupations in this field, which are projected to grow by nearly 20% across the country over the next 10 years, placing this emerging field of study in high student demand. 

The program will be entirely online and require 30 credit hours for completion. Students can complete it in one year if they are full-time, or in two to three years if they are part-time, Carlton said.

“It’s what’s called a price-to-market program, so it’s priced very competitively in terms of cost per credit,” Carlton said. “It works out to about a $23,000-degree, master’s degree, right, which is ridiculously inexpensive. But, we did that on purpose to make it accessible to a broad audience of potential students.”

Carlton said WVU’s program is unique because it offers students way more than online learning.

In speaking with colleagues at different universities around the country, Carlton said he came to understand that WVU is on the same campus as an academic health center and a level four quaternary medical center, WVU Medicine.

In addition, the School of Public Health is located close to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regional office and a local health department, the Monongalia Co. Health Department.

“We’re the only program, or only school of public health, in the country that has that,” Carlton said. “And so, our faculty are involved in all those places. And when they’re teaching, they’re teaching from that perspective. We, also, are able to draw on professional adjunct faculty from that cadre of organizations, and so it elevates us both in terms of our accreditation, our online accessibility, as well as just the sheer integration of those concepts into the work we do every day. It’s something you can’t really find anywhere else in the country.”

This one-of-a-kind population health program, Carlton said, could greatly benefit West Virginia as a whole.

Students walking in front of  the WVU Health Sciences Center

He said WVU is working to rebuild West Virginia’s public health workforce, which has a 30-40 percent vacancy right now. Some of that has to do with upscaling the workforce and providing students with additional skills, which is exactly what this new population health program aims to do.

Carlton said WVU has, also, linked the program to the TAA transition program.

“It’s for those who have lost jobs because of the pandemic, or other, you know, sudden closings, like Mylan,” Carlton said. “When Mylan closed, a lot of people lost their jobs because of that. And so, one of the main reasons why we’re looking hard at spring admissions is to help people — because I think there’s a six-month window there to help people who lost their jobs with Mylan be able to step in and they can get, essentially, extended unemployment benefits while they’re going through the program and get the program paid for. So, it’s, certainly, something for those who may have been impacted by that as they’re reaching out to our admissions folks should inquire about that and have the potential to be eligible there.”  

Carlton said WVU is, currently, working to offer spring admission into the program, but that option is being developed. He said they have to “retool” their systems before offering the class in the spring.

“We hope to have some news on that in September, honestly,” Carlton said. “We’ve got a couple of meetings to work through to finish that up. They definitely can start applying for next fall in the meantime, they’re welcome to enroll as non-degree students. They can take nine credits as non-degree students and then move those right into the program. So, there are options for those who want to enroll and I would just encourage them to visit our website and reach out to our graduate admissions folks about the program and get more information on how to move forward.” 

Visit WVU’s original story about the new population health program to read what the dean of the WVU School of Public Health and the executive director of the Monongalia Co. Health Department had to say.