5 November 2015

Public Health in the post-2015 Development Agenda Series: Training the Next Generation of Public Health Professionals

This is the fifth article of the UNAI series “Public Health in the post-2015 development agenda”. Schools and departments of public health at UNAI member institutions were asked to submit articles highlighting research and work relating to the proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and to showcase the importance of public health in the post-2015 development agenda. Please note that the articles are for discussion, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.

Academic institutions not only contribute research to guide United Nations (UN) initiatives including the SDGs, but degree-granting institutions also train the next generation of public health professionals who will implement the programs to achieve the  Goals SDGs. In this article, Dr. Regna Darnell explains how the Inter-faculty Program in Public Health at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada emphasises the human rights implications of public health to ensure that no one is left behind.  

A unique feature of Western University’s Master of Public Health (MPH) Program is its singling out of Aboriginal Health as an exemplar of Sustainable Development Goals and the human rights implications of public health. Following a semester course on Cultural and Social Determinants of Health with a global focus, the ensuing semester is devoted to Aboriginal Health to showcase how these determinants intermesh in the case of Canada’s First Peoples. These two courses together function to instil a social science perspective in our students, the majority of whom come from immigrant or international backgrounds.    

Like most Canadians, our students tend to know little about the histories or present circumstances of Aboriginal peoples within the nation-state. The appalling status of Aboriginal people relative to mainstream Canadians on every measurable dimension of health care is undeniable but largely invisible to public or political awareness. The presence of a few Aboriginal students in the program invites attention to the particulars of their experience. The recent release of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations on the ongoing consequences of residential school abuse triggered a controversial reference by the Chief Justice of the Canadian Supreme Court to “cultural genocide” within United Nations (UN) definitions as a result of longstanding assimilation-directed policy and underfunding. 

Learning teams, each combining students of different professional backgrounds within biomedicine, health delivery and volunteer service, are assigned a particular Aboriginal community in which to explore the impacts of cultural and social determinants of health in local terms. The teams report back to the class as a whole, providing a comparative perspective on recurrent and particular variables in health related Aboriginal experience. We emphasize that issues of sustainability, ecosystem health, and human rights require a long-term perspective and that one-size-fits-all solutions are not viable.  Diversity among the more than 600 Aboriginal bands in Canada becomes clear alongside the systemic structural constraints inhibiting both community development and individual well-being. 

Social science methodologies of qualitative ethnographic research and practice help students focus on how the resources of their future professional leadership positions might effectively address these complex questions. Grassroots consultation and community participation vastly increase the likelihood of a particular program or public health professional making a difference. Building public health capacity within Aboriginal communities is another priority. All students are encouraged to move from the biomedical emphasis on individual clients or patients to a community perspective that facilitates active involvement by community members at all stages of a research or health delivery project. The summer internship within our MPH program allows students to apply what they have learned to the professional area of their own aspiration. We intend to train public health leaders who will be attuned to issues of their clients and client communities, sensitive to cross-cutting of health intervention with other areas of social and cultural well-being, and active in seeking sustainable policies and practices.

Dr. Regna Darnell received a B.A. in Anthropology and English (cum laude) from Bryn Mawr College in 1965, an M.A. (1967) and Ph.D. (1969) in Anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania and a D. Litt. (honoris causa) from the University of Waterloo (2009).  She taught at the University of Alberta from 1969-1990, attaining the rank of Professor in 1979.  Professor Darnell came to Western in 1990, serving as Chair of Anthropology (1990-93) and as Director of the Centre for Research and Teaching of Canadian Native Languages since 1992.  She became a Distinguished University Professor in 2005.  She was the founding Director of Western’s First Nations Studies Program and holds a cross-appointment to the Interfaculty Program in Public Health, Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry. This public health discussion series was created and curated by UN Academic Impact Intern Zinnia Batliwalla.