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MC Launches Public Health Department in School of Nursing to Help Improve Disparities in Healthcare

Under the leadership of Mary Ellen Stewart, assistant professor of nursing, the new Department of Public Health will train public health professionals to improve population health throughout the state.
Under the leadership of Mary Ellen Stewart, assistant professor of nursing, the new Department of Public Health will train public health professionals to improve population health throughout the state.

In a state like Mississippi, where health system performance is consistently ranked at or near the bottom of the country, efficient and effective public health is a priority. The need for highly trained professionals who understand diverse healthcare challenges and can motivate individuals to make meaningful changes to improve health outcomes has never been greater.

Mississippi College has established a second department within its School of Nursing to help meet these public health challenges throughout the state. On June 1, MC launched the Department of Public Health to help students interested in healthcare careers learn how to stem the tide of negative health outcomes in Mississippi.

Under the leadership of Mary Ellen Stewart, assistant professor of nursing and president of the MC Faculty Senate, the new department will also train public health professionals to effectively apply their expertise to improve population health throughout the state.

“Public health focuses on preventive medicine, but unfortunately, that’s not part of the culture for many people in Mississippi,” Stewart said. “Public health professionals need to understand where people are coming from and how they can be motivated to take care of themselves. Knowing the disease process and treatment process is great for making a diagnosis, but how can we help patients navigate health care once they get home?

“Some students may say, ‘I would love to serve in healthcare somehow, but I don’t necessarily want to take care of patients.’ Public health is a great place for them to land.”

Before being raised to departmental status, public health had been a program within the school. Now, the School of Nursing will consist of two departments – a Department of Nursing that will continue to offer exceptional undergraduate and graduate degree programs in nursing, and the Department of Public health, which will offer the Bachelor’s in Public Health, the Master’s in Health Science Administration, and eventually, the Master’s in Public Health.

Stewart is working to gain M.P.H. accreditation approval from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. Meanwhile, the current public health curriculum is being revised to include more Core Competencies for Public Health Professionals.

The Health Services Administration Program – the University’s lone interdisciplinary graduate program – has been transferred to the Department of Public Health. Jeanne Bernier, assistant professor and director of graduate programs for the School of Nursing, and Stewart will lead the program together.

“Under Dr. Stewart’s leadership, and through collaboration between current HSA faculty and School of Nursing and Public Health Program faculty, HSA students will gain insight into the current healthcare landscape from multiple perspectives and levels of expertise,” Bernier said. “Routine course updates will incorporate knowledge, best practices, and emerging leadership trends from many of the professions involved in health services administration.”

Bernier and Stewart inherit the HSA Program from Melanie Fortenberry, who recently retired from MC after many years of service as instructor and director of the program. Bernier praised Fortenberry for helping to nurture the robust academic offering.

“Melanie has been an exceptional leader of the HSA Program and she will be greatly missed by her students and colleagues,” Bernier said. “She has grown and maintained a successful program for years, and we are determined to carry on the foundations of the program she poured so much of her time and energy into while strengthening the program with diverse knowledge sources and unique faculty and administrative perspectives.”

Bernier said her immediate goals are to help make the HSA Program’s transition to the Department of Public Health as seamless as possible while increasing recruitment and enrollment. Long-term, she plans to ensure the program meets the needs of students while preparing knowledgeable and capable healthcare leaders who strive to make health services better for everyone through evidence-based research and clinical practices.

“Students participating in MC’s MHSA Program can expect to experience an online learning environment of support and encouragement that prepares them to be leaders in all types of health services,” she said. Courses will be delivered via Canvas, a straightforward learning management system where technical support is available as needed.

“Under the leadership of Dr. Stewart, the MC School of Nursing, and the Public Health Program, MHSA students will have a dedicated team from which to learn, grow, and succeed as master’s-prepared healthcare leaders.”

Not only has the public health curriculum attained a new designation at Mississippi College, but the new department also has a new location. MC’s Interior Design Department is moving from Farr Hall to the Aven Fine Arts Building, making room for the School of Nursing department’s expansion. The new upper floor space in Farr includes three large classrooms, a conference room, “touchdown space” for faculty teaching in the classrooms, and a study area for students.

The first cohort of three students received the Bachelor of Science in Public Health from MC last May. All three are continuing to pursue careers in healthcare: one has been working in the School of Population Health at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and is returning to MC this fall to pursue a master’s degree, one will enroll in an accelerated nursing program at UMMC, and one will also return to MC for postgraduate studies following a yearlong commitment to the military.

Nine other students received their B.S.N. from MC with a concentration in public health last May.

“That makes them more marketable and able to open more doors in healthcare,” Stewart said. “Many students are working on degrees in nursing or biology/pre-med with the intention of going to graduate school.

“Having a minor in public health helps them see the bigger picture of how healthcare works. That knowledge is extremely valuable when they go out in the ‘real world.’”

Stewart said more than two dozen students have already enrolled in the Department of Public Health for the fall 2024 semester.

“Those who are already in the healthcare industry – nurses, doctors, and therapists – are investing their time in public health coursework,” she said. “They are coming back to get a master’s degree in public health so they can better understand the business and leadership sides of healthcare, not just what their direct patient care specialties are.”

With recent grant funding from the Gertrude C. Ford Foundation, departmental leaders are already planning to grow their course offerings. Last spring, they began working with different agencies in the community to provide real-world experience for students.

For example, the three recent graduates each completed between 35 and 45 hours of internship assistance for the Mississippi Department of Human Services. Last semester, several students visited a catfish farm in the Delta to understand the employees’ home and work environments and how they could impact their overall health.

“The tenets of public health are not just built on surveying and assessing what’s going on with individuals, but helping to make policy that will impact their health care in a positive way,” Stewart said. “A great deal of our public health focus is on equity and how to make sure there are no disparities between populations.

“Public health in Mississippi is an enormous issue, and we want to make a difference.”

For more information about the Department of Public Health at MC, click here.