MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The West Virginia University School of Public Health and the Monongalia County Health Department have teamed up to create a program like no other in the state of West Virginia.

The two parties have created an academic health department, which is the first of its kind in the state. Dr. Lee Smith the executive director and county health officer with MCHD said the plan had been in the works for four years. Smith said it’s more than a title but instead a recognition that there is a working relationship between the two parties.

“This agreement formalizes is that, in essence, the school of public health teaches the theory, that’s the educational aspect of what you need to know to work in the field of public health,” Smith said. “We, on the other hand, are where those activities get translated into action so while they’re the theory, we’re the actual laboratory. So it’s a great combination, something it’s an overused thing to say win-win but this truly is good for the school of public health, it’s good for the department of health.”

Smith said the two have been working together for years, but this agreement makes it clear what their responsibilities are and what both sides can expect. He said what the MCHD gets out of the deal are students, who are a resource when it comes to working on projects. The county, he said, is very rich for research into subjects like STDs, HIV, Hepatitis, or food born outbreaks, for example, but because the department does not have enough people they cannot do all the research that they would like.

“What we’re trying to get to is data-driven decision making,” Smith said. “It’s one thing to say well you know ‘we know this is a problem’, but we need to have an analysis of that problem in terms of what is bad, how can we change that behavior, where is it good, where do we need funding, where do we not have to put our efforts and those sorts of analyses that need to be done to sort of help drive a small department that is tasked with a lot of issues.”

Smith said having students for projects does not only benefit the department but also provides real-world experience to those students. He said the one-on-one working experiences will attract students because they will feel like they are making a contribution to the community. Plus, the ability to see what a health department does, Smith said, will help students determine whether the field is right for them and what specific parts of public health best suit them.

He said he hopes the academic health department encourages students to stay in Monongalia County after graduating and also to stay within the state. Smith said there are 55 counties in West Virginia but only 48 health departments. Of the 48, he said there are big ones, such as MCHD and small ones, which typically consist of three or four people.

“They need just as much help, probably even more help sometimes,” Smith said. “So how do we take the students that are here, particularly in today’s generation, that want to contribute to society and try and channel those energies into more rural areas and get them the help that they can use to their own benefit but also experience to those students so we have a huge opportunity to improve the delivery of public healthcare throughout the citizens of the state.”

The program was formalized October 31 and Smith said it will grow as both parties see fit for the foreseeable future.