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Spring 2021

Partnerships with purpose: Place-based health in the pandemic era

article summary

Improving health outcomes means going beyond a one-size-fits-all framework.

For the Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC), this philosophy was the foundation for partnering with the Gillings School of to launch the Master of Public Health (MPH) program in Asheville, North Carolina. Recognizing that health challenges in western N.C. often differed from other parts of the state, program founder Travis Johnson, MD, MPH, saw a need for public health education to go beyond the walls of the classroom.

The Asheville MPH, with its concentration in Place-Based Health, has an administrative home in the Gillings School’s Public Health Leadership Program (PHLP). “It’s the only program of its kind in the country,” said Anna Schenck, PhD, PHLP director and associate dean for practice. “It was designed to celebrate and leverage the unique context of the western part of our state.”

The program uses connections that the Gillings School, UNC Asheville and MAHEC have in western N.C. to its advantage. Students, who are often employed in local health professions, learn to work with providers, community leaders and government officials to understand place in the context of public health.

The curriculum demonstrates agility and adaptability, both in its principles and its delivery, with a hybrid learning model that occurs in-person and online.

“We want to teach learners how to work with others, especially in an era of team-based care and population health.”
MPH student Hannah Robinson completed her practicum with Partners Aligned Toward Health in Yancey and Mitchell counties over the summer. Hannah supported the Summer Food Program by helping distribute fresh, local produce to the community.

That agility became critical in early 2020. In February, Johnson died after an eight-year battle with cancer, and the onset of COVID-19 in the weeks that followed rocked the program.

Pushing forward with the same resilience Johnson modeled, program leaders and students adapted modules to emerging issues from the pandemic. For MAHEC, the pivot was possible because it aligned with the MPH program’s case-based learning objectives.

COVID-19 magnified challenges local communities were already facing. Health care workers were thinly spread and had trouble communicating critical information. Insufficient broadband access only exacerbated this issue. Vulnerable populations were at high risk of outbreaks. And concerns grew around stress and its impact on substance abuse and opioid death rates.

Assistant Director Sarah Thach, MPH, and Director of Academic Affairs Amy Joy Lanou, PhD, have been leading the effort to integrate place-based coursework into the local public health response to these issues.

“We want to teach learners how to work with others, especially in an era of team-based care and population health,” Thach said. “We were able to quickly change existing plans to focus on COVID, and the students thought it was helpful to work on something very timely.”

Students have participated in COVID-19-related case studies, health assessments and volunteer opportunities. In their practica, they have helped design plans for testing, food distribution and more. Culminating experiences have engaged the Latinx community and higher education peers in health communication.

“Our partnership with MAHEC has been a real advantage in terms of being right up in the middle of the western N.C. pandemic response,” said Lanou. MAHEC’s leadership has been critical for obtaining funding and research support for MPH faculty, staff and student initiatives.

Through service and circumstance, the team has forged a strong bond with communities and within the program. Students and faculty work together with the knowledge that they will be colleagues even after graduation. In 2020, the program saw its first cohort graduate – over Zoom – and students continue to integrate coursework into practice today.

As the program evolves, Johnson’s enduring spirit lingers.

“One student said she felt him on her shoulder as she helped her organization pivot to address the pandemic,” Thach recalled. “As we oriented the Fall 2020 cohort to Travis’ legacy, we spoke of his vision, relentless optimism, deep connection with everyone he met and humility. Those are the lessons our students are reflecting on as they learn to meet community needs.”