Deborah Helitzer, ScD
Deborah Helitzer, ScD, is the founding dean of the UNM College of Population Health.
Credit: Rebecca Gustaf

The University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center is launching a new, multidisciplinary College of Population Health to train students in the art of keeping people healthy.

It will become only the second college of population health in the U.S., and the first to offer a bachelor’s degree, said Deborah Helitzer, ScD, the new college’s founding dean. It will meet a growing need for a workforce that will help health systems meet the requirements of the Affordable Care Act and help communities to improve wellness and prevention.

“Students here are very interested in what they can give back to their communities,” she said. “This will be a program where they can get a job doing that.”

Health care reform is changing provider incentives so that they will be rewarded for keeping their patients healthy rather than treating them after they become ill. Skilled workers will be needed to help patients follow their doctors’ orders, fill their prescriptions and develop healthy habits, she said.

“Our college is going to train people like that,” Helitzer said. Its graduates could also be hired as administrators in managed care organizations or as community-based caseworkers, she added.

The new college, which recently won approval from the UNM Board of Regents, is the first new college created in the Health Sciences Center in more than 50 years, taking its place alongside the School of Medicine, College of Nursing and College of Pharmacy.

The college will absorb and expand the masters of public health program currently offered by UNM’s Department of Family and Community Medicine, Helitzer said. There are also plans to create a PhD program in the future.

Public health programs traditionally have focused on large-scale initiatives, such as ensuring clean water and air, preventing smoking and other measures that save lives. Population health focuses on defined groups – such as the pool of patients in a health plan – and implements strategies to keep them healthy, Helitzer said. 

This might include a new way of offering care or designing the way health care is delivered. Population health is based on understanding health risks and health outcomes. Social determinants of health, such as poverty, low educational attainment and access to fresh fruits and vegetables, affect the population’s health and must be taken into consideration.

Much of the new college’s curriculum will be delivered online as part of what Helitzer is calling a “virtual college” model that makes use of existing UNM resources. Students could, for example, take a health law sequence at the School of Law, a built environment concentration in the School of Architecture and Planning or a health finance track in the Anderson School of Management.

Although the first entering class will start in Fall 2016, two preliminary courses are being offered this fall to undergraduates.

“We’re trying to give them a bigger perspective on what population health is,” Helitzer said. “Because most people are unfamiliar with population health, we’ll have to do a lot of educating.”