Full Circle: Students Connect Clinic and Community

February 26, 2016   |  Tags: Blog   |  Tags: Population Health , Training
Sophie Nathenson

The growing emphasis in managing population health across clinical, social, and environmental arenas has spurred both challenges and innovative, collaborative strategies to improve health and wellbeing.  It is now widely acknowledged that “health” happens not only within the health care system, but largely outside the clinic: in the home, at work and school, and in other community settings. Addressing population heath is a priority among health care institutions across the country, but how exactly to connect the clinical, social, and environmental facets of health remains an exciting work in progress.

The Oregon Institute of Technology, a poly-technic university situated in rural Klamath Falls, Oregon, has joined the population health movement through an innovative and community-embedded program in Population Health Management (PHM).  The bachelor’s program, whose initial cohort includes students pursing careers in medicine, nursing, epidemiology, public health, and human services, is based on the academic study of medical sociology.  As students learn about the “social determinants” of health, making connections between the health of a community and its social and economic structure, they participate in community health efforts in the local area. Students are aware that the field of population health management is new and evolving, and the science of managing population health can be a valuable tool in entering a changing job market.

Oregon Tech has a reputation for career-preparation, and the PHM program takes the “hands on, real world” approach to heart. Its first students started a university-backed Population Health Management Research Center, where they polish their PHM skills through professional service in research, grant writing, program evaluation, and policy recommendations. Their “clients” include the Red Cross of America, Klamath County Public Health, and the YMCA. PHM students are conducting community surveys, gathering baseline data on air quality and chronic illness, piloting an after-school physical activity program, and designing a diabetes support group that can be evaluated through clinical health data.

The sociological approach to population health management takes into account the entire scene of health- from the clinical, to the social, to the environmental.  The social science perspective is inherently “big picture” - envisioning the varied professional roles, political factions, cultural contexts, policies, and economic drivers of health.  The work of an effective population health manager is complex, and Oregon Tech’s program relies on students-in-training to guide and assist in understanding this new role. The sociological model of population health is an evidenced-based, community-led, research-driven method to close the clinic-community gap, and students provide a low-stakes route to innovation.  Starting in the community, identifying current health promotion projects, gathering intel for vested partners, reviewing evidenced-based programs, and connecting community efforts to clinical data is the work of a population health manager. Building on what a community already has going, affirming the work of those around you, and learning through professional service are valuable lessons, and translatable skills.

We may very well be training students today for the jobs of tomorrow, in the field of population health management- but they may also be training us. 

Sophie Nathenson, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Medical Sociology at the Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls,  and directs the Population Health Management  Program and the Population Health Management Research Center. She studied psychology and Spanish at the University of Tulsa, and completed studies abroad in Madrid and Prague. After working in the Czech Republic, she completed a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Utah. Dr. Nathenson has been involved in numerous projects related to community health research, youth mentorship, and innovative education. Her research has focused on religion, spirituality and health, and her consulting aims to help organizations make use of data to better serve their mission.