Open any newspaper and you’ll find a story about public health. Whether AIDS or avian flu, obesity or the uninsured, public health problems aren’t going away. The United States’ grossly inefficient system fails millions of people; abroad, globalization brings the threat of new and old epidemics closer to home.
Such problems demand innovative solutions. In a recent report on the future of public health, the Institute of Medicine stressed the need for leaders with a broader interdisciplinary perspective to confront today’s challenges. Yale has the resources and potential to step up to this important task, but so far it has missed its chance to follow through.
Unbeknownst to most Yalies, the University began to discuss the need for interdisciplinary health studies several years ago. The appendix of the 2003 Committee on Yale College Education Report includes an overview of the need for a health studies major. According to the report, this major would include strong disciplinary training and a broad multidisciplinary approach to develop an “understanding of the connections and relationships among the forces that influence health, including but not limited to genomics, physiology, individual behavior, societal and economic structures and systems, culture, policy and law, and ethics.” In contrast to the five-year public health program, which adds graduate courses to a student’s undergraduate major, a health studies major would provide a strong liberal arts foundation for future leaders interested in any health professions. All undergraduates could benefit.
Unfortunately, little has changed since then. A committee exists to address these issues, but progress has been slow. There are plans to introduce new courses in the health studies field next year, but no timeline has been established for the major. With no undergraduates on the committee, the initiative risks being placed permanently on hold.
Despite the slow progress of the administration, student demand has surged. Nationwide, the number of students applying to schools of public health has increased by over 50 percent in the past 10 years, and at Yale this interest has been particularly strong. The Princeton Review notes Yale’s high level of public health activism in its most recent college guide. Next week, during National Public Health Week, several students will organize an online petition for a health studies major to demonstrate the magnitude of this interest.
Not only would such a major align with student needs, but it fits with the University’s goals for meaningful liberal arts education. In contrast to premed tracks, a health studies major would encourage students to think critically about the larger determinants of health.
Many professors at the School of Public Health and other professional schools are interested in teaching such interdisciplinary Yale College classes, but the University must make more funding available. While finding money for a new program is difficult, investment in health studies makes strategic sense. Health is a large part of our economy – about $1.5 trillion. Creating a program that encourages a more interdisciplinary perspective on health care will be essential for Yale to maintain its status as one of the world’s preeminent universities.
Despite strong resources in many health-related fields, the University has been slower than peer institutions to provide true interdisciplinary study. In 2000, Harvard University’s Interfaculty Initiative in Health Policy began to offer a certificate in health policy as a kind of second major for interdisciplinary health study. Yale can and should do better. Johns Hopkins University may be the best model to follow. About 30 years ago, the school created an independent public health studies major; it’s now the third most popular major.
A health studies major can work. The health problems of the 21st century won’t wait, and neither should we.
Robert Nelb is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College.