The University of Maryland, College Park will formally launch the state's first publicly funded school of public health today, pledging to train students to confront regional health issues ranging from HIV infection to morbid obesity.
Though the state already is home to one of the largest and most prestigious public health schools in the world at the Johns Hopkins University, UM officials say that a public program with lower tuition will enable more low-income and minority students to learn to address problems that disproportionately affect their populations.
"There are tremendous health disparities in the state of Maryland between traditionally underserved and low-income populations in terms of obesity, smoking rates, Type 2 diabetes ... and relatively high cancer rates," said Robert S. Gold, dean of the new school.
Unlike Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health, known for its emphasis on global health issues, "there absolutely will be a focus on Maryland and the region as our primary mission," he said.
Schools of public health, which train people to understand and confront health problems that affect large populations - from infectious diseases to chronic poverty - are a fast-growing segment of higher education nationally.
There are about 40 accredited schools in the country, 10 of which were formed in the past five years, according to Harrison Spencer, president of the Association of Schools of Public Health.
The new program at College Park is supposed to be a social sciences companion to a medicine-focused public health school at the university system's graduate campus, the University of Maryland, Baltimore. But that school has not opened yet.
Over the summer, the downtown campus suspended plans to launch its public health school, citing budget pressures. The Baltimore campus needs additional state funding in order to establish a new administrative entity, officials there say, while College Park has essentially reorganized and renamed its 78-year-old College of Health and Human Performance without major new funding.
Though the Baltimore program is on hold, "I am certain that the effort at UMB will be resurrected," said university system Chancellor William E. Kirwan. "The two together ... will become one of the best public health schools, public or private, in the country."
The College of Health and Human Performance at College Park had its roots in an institute for physical sport, and its standout research programs are still in exercise physiology and cognitive and motor development, Gold said. Community and family health programs were added in more recent years.
Several years ago, university administrators noticed that those programs were a natural fit for the burgeoning public health field, which has expanded beyond the study of diseases to look also at behavioral health problems that sometimes take on epidemic form.
In preparation for the transition to a school of public health, the college created two new academic departments - epidemiology and biostatistics, and health services administration - and added about 15 faculty members this year.
Mary Leach, a senior adviser to UMB President David J. Ramsay, said yesterday that the Baltimore campus hopes to renew its search for a dean for a school of public health by next year, but "we're waiting to see what the budget situation will look like."
Michael J. Klag, dean of the Bloomberg school, welcomed the College Park program and said he does not consider it a potential competitor to his much larger institution. "We look forward to working with them and making Maryland a healthier place for everyone to live," Klag said. "Many of the people who are there came from our school."
Gold likewise played down any competitive tensions with Hopkins, noting a "quantum difference in terms of size of faculty." His new school has about 75 faculty members; the Bloomberg school has about 500 full-time faculty members and more than 550 part-time faculty. About 2,000 students from more than 80 countries study at Hopkins' graduate public health program in East Baltimore.
Though the University of Maryland school will not rival Hopkins in size or influence anytime soon, Gold has set ambitious goals. "My expectation is that our research expenditure will double in the next three to five years," he said, from about $7 million or $8 million a year to between $16 million and $18 million.
And while the number of undergraduates is expected to remain stable at about 1,200, Gold hopes to add hundreds of graduate students in new doctoral programs and master's of public health concentrations in the next five years.
By fall 2009, university officials hope to achieve full accreditation from the Council on Education for Public Health.
Baltimore's health commissioner, Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, said much of the municipal work force confronting the city's major health issues - among them drug use, HIV infection, infant mortality and lead poisoning - lacks public health training.
If it were possible, he said, everyone in the city's Health Department would have a master's degree in public health education.
"I think what [the degree program] does is it helps people think about the problems," Sharfstein said. "You could be running a program and that program just keeps going, but how are we doing with the problem? Public health training gives people the skills to think those questions through."
But more training is no panacea, Sharfstein said. He said jobs in government and nonprofit agencies that typically deal with public health issues need to pay more to attract highly skilled and highly educated people.
"That's also a big issue in public health - making sure you're paying people well and competitively," he said. "Otherwise, the education program alone may not lure people into the field."