When health departments and universities join together, public health students can gain on-the-job training. Dozens of such academic health departments exist in states around the country. Photo by Nikada, courtesy iStockphoto

When health departments and universities join together, public health students can gain on-the-job training. Dozens of such academic health departments exist in states around the country. Photo by Nikada, courtesy iStockphoto

Every year, more than 200 college students rotate through Tennessee’s Knox County Health Department, many of them future health workers hoping to put their classroom learning into practice.

“We want to create meaningful experiences for them,” APHA member Martha Buchanan, MD, the health department’s director, told The Nation’s Health. “When the students are here and providing input, they’re heard.”

Those experiences are thanks to an agreement with the University of Tennessee Department of Public Health known as an academic health department, an arrangement between health departments and academic institutions focused on enhancing public health education, research and services. The Tennessee collaboration is a two-way street — students get to experience the daily workings of a real health department, and staff from the health department lecture at the university and offer guidance to ensure the public health curriculum is graduating students ready to practice. Students who intern at the Knox County agency can come with their own project ideas, but they also get to take part in some of its most critical work, such as community health assessments and improvement planning.

And the collaboration goes beyond the two public health counterparts. For example, Buchanan said the health agency is planning a project with the College of Engineering to standardize and streamline its screening and referral services. The agency also opens its internship slots to students in all kinds of majors, from medicine and nursing to engineering and law, which Buchanan said helps expand the kind of cross-sector understanding needed to advance health equity goals.

“Equity and the social determinants of health are such a challenge for all of us,” she said. “These are big problems that aren’t just for public health to address.”

While the Knox County Health Department is the first academic health department in Tennessee, it is one of dozens across the country and follows a long tradition of public health-academia partnerships.

To continue reading this story from the August 2018 issue of The Nation’s Health, visit the newspaper online.