Mercy College has launched a bachelor of science program in public health, a program whose time has come, according to Joelle Stolte, MPH, PhD(c), chair of the new program.
“The program at Mercy College is the first of only three undergraduate public health programs in Iowa,” she said. “Traditionally, public health has been more of a master’s level program, but Mercy College recognized the urgent need to build a pool of public health professionals at the undergraduate level.”
Stolte, who is also an assistant professor in the program, cites Iowa’s aging population, changes in the health care system, and the increasing devastation of the opioid epidemic in Iowa and across the nation as drivers in the greater demand for public health professionals. “It’s partly just a question of numbers,” Stolte said, “but there is also a need for those who go on to graduate work in public health to have a better foundation at the undergraduate level.”
According to the Iowa Department of Public Health, there were at least 202 opioid-related deaths in the state last year, and the number of tragic deaths increases annually. Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control says that 44 persons die each day from a prescription drug overdose. “Societal factors like access to health care and low income play a role in addiction, as well as events in people’s lives that they are coping with that can make them turn to opioids,” Stolte explained. “One problem we have fighting the epidemic is that there’s a gap in the numbers of trained health professionals that we need to get to the root of the opioid problem.”
Opiates are a highly effective way to manage pain, which is one of the main drivers of the epidemic, said Nola Aigner, who is an adjunct instructor in the Mercy College Public Health program and the public information officer and health educator for the Polk County Health Department. “It’s quick and easy, and in our society we like that. There are alternative pain therapies like physical therapy and exercise, but they are longer term solutions and take resources.” An estimated 80 percent of those using heroin in this country were led to it from abuse of prescription pain relievers.
Polk County is the most populous of Iowa’s 99 counties, with more than twice the residents of the next largest county, and thus at the forefront of combating the opioid epidemic in the state. “One of the big issues of the opioid crisis is that it affects virtually everyone,” said Aigner. “A lot of people think that addiction can’t happen to them, but it can and it does. Throughout the county, almost everyone has someone close to them who is dealing with it.”
According to Sam Quinones, author of “Dreamland,” the preeminent history of the opioid epidemic, another reason for the tenacity of the opioid problem is stigma. Parents, family members and friends often do not want to talk about friends or loved ones who are dealing with addiction, so the epidemic is able to spread in the silence. Public health professionals, trained in the social, behavioral and cultural aspects of health care, can help communities find ways to bring the epidemic into the light, create partnerships to find solutions and save lives.
“Part of our public health program is giving students practical, real world experience,” said Stolte, who will be a keynote speaker at the 13th annual Research Symposium of Mercy College of Health Sciences, which will be held on April 2 in the Sullivan Center on the Mercy College campus.
“Solutions won’t happen until there is awareness,” said Aigner, who is part of a new task force in Polk County dedicated to addressing the opioid crisis. “We have to come together as a community, and those of us in public health need to find ways to address this problem as proactively as possible.”