Public Health Program Gets Major Upgrade

Graphic By Oluwaseun Adeyemi | Mercury Staff

Starting in fall 2023, the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences will now offer a bachelor’s degree in public health, which combines medical topics with the social, political and economic contexts that healthcare takes place in.

Richard Scotch, EPPS professor and program head of sociology, made the proposal after seeing Comets’ interest in the public health minor, which has already been declared by 36 students. The degree is meant to prepare students for careers in public health administration, safety and research, but can also serve as a strong second degree for those interested in healthcare or medicine. Intended as a liberal arts program, the subject matter of the major focuses on global policymaking and a societal viewpoint of wellness, rather than science or clinical courses.

“[The program exists] to give people some … understanding of the social context for health,” Scotch said. “What are the social dimensions? Why are some people more likely to be at risk for health problems than others? What are some of the barriers for people getting treatment? We’ll be looking at mental health. We’ll be looking at environmental health. Each of those involves some special topics.”

Scotch said pre-med students took an interest in EPPS’s medical sociology and health policy classes, leading to the establishment of the public health minor ten years ago. Scotch said that he believes the new program will attract more pre-med students, as it is a good complement to a science major, as well as to those interested in a master’s degree in public health.

“Then, I think there are students who might not want the graduate degree, but who want to work in the healthcare sector,” Scotch said. “As you know, it’s about a sixth of the whole economy, so there’s a lot of opportunities there.”

The major goes beyond medical practice and focuses on understanding healthcare at a deeper level. Matthew Lin, a public health sophomore, said that education level, socioeconomic status and local policy can influence health and healthcare, which is the primary focus of the program. As a pre-med student, Lin chose the major to focus on health policy, though he also takes classes related to the sociology and economics of health.

“I know there’s a lot of doctors out there who are really smart in science, and they can do research, and they can do surgery, [but] there’s not that many people who kind of have an interdisciplinary appreciation for both the aspects and sensitivity of care that is health, and also the structural and regulatory environment that is policy,” Lin said. “I want to become a doctor, I want to get that MD, but I want to use my MD to advocate for better health policy, potentially on a federal or a state or local level.”

EPPS Dean Jennifer Holmes said that the university has been working on creating a fast-track Master of Public Health degree, which would combine undergraduate courses at UTD with graduate courses at an external school. The program is still under development, but if approved, it would likely take around five years for students to complete.

“I just can’t tell you how excited I am about this,” Holmes said. “I think it’s a really great offering for students. It has a defined career path. And it’s very flexible, so what’s fun for our pre-med students is they don’t just have to be one major.” 

Holmes said that it can be difficult to advertise a new degree because of the time it takes for the university to make the program a viable option for students. However, she has faith that a healthy amount of enrollment will follow due to interest in the public health minor and said that by next fall, EPPS will have a good idea of how big the program will get. Currently, students can view the major and its required courses in the 2023 undergraduate catalog.

“This is a [historic] moment when public health has come into the public eye because of the events of the last few years,” Scotch said. “Health is not just about access to the health care system, it’s about the society in which we live and people’s culture.” 

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