By Sarah Scopio
Rebekah Wells ’17 MS was at a crossroads in her career before she enrolled at the Mount as a graduate student. “After studying epidemiology at UCLA medical school, I knew interventions could help stop disease, but I didn’t know how to implement them. I wanted to know for sure I could change population health,” Wells says.
She learned the tools to create change in the health policy and management master's program.
“We see the health policy and management program as the intersection of three specializations,” says Stephen Inrig, PhD, program director. “Students learn health policy analysis, health economics, and leadership and management skills, and how all these things work together in really practical ways at the local level.”
A key component of learning is the practicum, which is designed based on the needs of the student either in their own research area or in an existing research study.
“One of the important things in any healthcare setting is to know how to solve a problem and increase quality improvement,” Inrig says. “Learning how to ask a question with measurable outcomes, and then design a program to meet those outcomes, is essential.
“We have faculty with great experience and resources. We have individuals who’ve led children’s hospitals, managed programs for the city of Los Angeles, spoken in front of the UN about their research and worked on legislation in the Obama administration,” says Inrig.
Current research areas include unaccompanied minors seeking asylum across the nation, formerly incarcerated women in transition and the Mount’s own wellness movement.
“We have been connected to Mount Wellness from the very beginning,” says Inrig. “We were invited to the Wellness Council to help develop the assessment tools. Assessing where students are at, and figuring out how to move them to health, aligns with what we are doing in our program. We believe in evidence-based programs, so we are always measuring. If you don’t know where you are, you can’t tell if you are improving.”
Assessing a community’s wellness needs
For her practicum, Wells worked with Bryant Adibe, MD, MSMU's former chief wellness officer, to create the campus-wide needs assessment survey that informed the Mount's current wellness movement.
"We could say, 'Let's offer yoga!' but unless you design a survey to give you specific benchmarks, you won't truly understand the needs," says Wells, who is now the health policy and management program coordinator.
The needs assessment includes questions such as: “How often do you eat fruits and vegetables?” “How much sleep do you get each night?” “How stressed do you feel on a daily basis?” The answers surprised Wells.
“We discovered that students need more sleep, and need to learn health and stress management techniques. We gathered a lot of qualitative data for our report,“ says Wells.
The needs assessment directly informed the focal areas of the wellness movement: eat green, move more, sleep well and de-stress.
When the survey was first conducted in fall 2016, 31 percent of students reported that the Mount promotes a culture of wellness. Last fall, that number increased to 50 percent.
“We are making sure we are doing interventions in all the areas that need improvement, and then measuring how we are doing on those interventions,” Inrig says.
A needs assessment survey will be conducted annually to help the University gauge the success of certain wellness initiatives, as well as to pinpoint other areas that need attention.
A passion for policy change
Teaching students how to make effective changes to healthcare has long been a dream of Inrig’s. He was brought to Mount Saint Mary’s in 2014 to develop the master’s program.
Inrig says the program is more than a professional interest; it also stems from his personal passion. “I became interested in this work because I care very much about vulnerable populations and how we can improve care for those people,” he says.
He began his career as a historian writing on the impact of certain policies on HIV in the South. “One review of my first work said ‘You’ve shown us where the buses ran over people, but you haven’t told us where to put the stop signs.’ I wanted to know how to place the stop signs.“
To learn the skills to create policy change, Inrig went on to earn his PhD in the History of Medicine and Health Policy from Duke University. He has become a leading expert on the historical perspective of the AIDS epidemic. His newest book, “The AIDS Pandemic: Searching for a Global Response,” co-authored by Michael Merson, has gained international attention. Inrig has spoken about his research at the United Nations, the Global Health Centre in Switzerland and at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, D.C. Now he takes the lessons he’s learned on the global scale and shares them with his students.
Currently in its third year, the health policy and management master‘s program is thriving. “Creating the program was a logical next step for the Mount,” he says. “We have an MBA program and it has a focus on healthcare, a master’s in nursing and a physical therapy department. All of these programs have a health policy component, but we wanted to take the next step and create a truly comprehensive program. We hope to eventually develop dual degree programs.”
For Inrig, the bottom line is to provide the best education for students. “The field of healthcare is always changing, so we are always improving the program to make it better for our students.”