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Deborah Helitzer, associate vice chancellor for Research Education at the UNM Health Sciences Center, is the founding dean of the College of Population Health.

Deborah Helitzer, associate vice chancellor for Research Education at the UNM Health Sciences Center, is the founding dean of the College of Population Health.

UNM's new degree program is first of its kind

UNM is launching the first undergraduate degree program in population health in the country, allowing students the chance to study in a field that is particularly vital.

The College of Population Health was formed last year and is rolling out its first major program this fall.

Dean Deborah Helitzer said for the last 100 years, public health and medical care were traditionally separated, but the UNM College of Population Health aims to unite them.

Robert Olds, director of the young college’s undergraduate programs, said there is a need for people with prevention training in the New Mexico workforce as well as nationally.

“We’re trying to bring together what we do in public health, which focuses on communities and prevention, with what we do with primary care, which is what we do with treatment of individuals,” Olds said.

The Affordable Care Act is one motivation for this change because it places the burden of keeping people healthy on the healthcare system, Helitzer said.

“Health systems have traditionally treated people when they’re sick, but they have never been responsible for keeping people well. Because of that, health systems have to collaborate with communities and governments to actually reduce the cost of healthcare,” Helitzer said.

Olds said the Affordable Care Act has created more opportunities within the field of population health.

“There’s more opportunities for community health navigators to help patients and clients navigate the healthcare system,” he said, “so we want to provide some training in those kinds of work.”

The degree program consists of core courses in population health and a specific area of focus, which is similar to a minor.

According to Helitzer, the core courses examine healthcare finance, environmental health, global health, and population health management in clinical settings.

Potential areas of focus depend on individual students’ interests, and can vary from computer science to business management, college officials said.

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The college is also actively building relationships with other departments so that students can seamlessly transition an area of focus for their degree program, Helitzer said.

Along with training students for newer healthcare jobs, she said the major will also be an asset to students interested in medical school.

“The entrance exams for medical school — the MCAT and DAT — have been changed and the content is very much more oriented to social sciences and to a broader perspective of health. So this program prepares them much better than a traditional chemistry degree or a biology degree,” Helitzer said.

Students interested in a medical degree can choose chemistry or biology for their area of focus.

Olds said the college is trying to make their introductory courses eligible for core requirements.

“An educated citizenry should understand public health issues, should understand epidemiology, should understand disease transmission,” he said, “so that when we talk about Zika and an outbreak and we try to make a judgement about the perceived risk that it presents to the public’s health and the policies that should follow it, we can try to have an informed citizenry engaged in that discussion to figure out what to do.”

Intro to Population Health examines the social determinants of health, prevention and treatment, Helitzer said.

The other course that officials are trying to make core-eligible analyzes global health challenges and responses.

“Vic Barbero is our instructor for 102 and he has more than 20 years of (U.S. Agency for International Development) experience. So he’s done public health on the ground globally for a long time, so teaching a global health course he could do in his sleep because he’s lived it for so many years of his career,” Olds said.

According to Olds, this unique program began at UNM because there is demand in the state for collaborative solutions to public health problems, including diabetes and cancer.

He said the vast levels of experience at UNM helped make possible the creation of the college and its growth.

“There’s a president and a chancellor who had a vision for moving in this direction. There’s a dean who had the experience and the background who had the skill to help lead that charge,” Olds said. “And then there are people like me who have done it at other institutions and have the experience having done so.”

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