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Dr. Ashish Joshi, dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Memphis, has envisioned and implemented dynamic initiatives that include activating the local youth and the concept of glocalization.

Dr. Ashish Joshi

Dean, School of Public Health at the University of Memphis

“It’s not just about creating a workforce or doling out degrees. We have a much larger responsibility as public-health educators.”

When Dr. Ashish Joshi became dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Memphis in the summer of 2022, he wanted to act fast with an educational approach that would go beyond academia. And given the many distressing statistics throughout the current public health spectrum, he understood that he had to.

For instance, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the prevalence of hypertension (i.e., high blood pressure) in the United States is 47.3%. That’s almost half the population.

But the state of public health needs to also be measured by greater, overarching factors that are inherently debilitating — especially the levels of poverty in any given area, which can severely affect access to proper nutrition and generally healthy standards of living. In the city of Memphis alone, the poverty rate is 21.4% —among the highest in the country — and the child poverty rate is 32.7%.

“We’re facing rapidly changing socio-economic and geopolitical environments that demand a new way of thinking about public health within a local, national, and global context,” Dr. Joshi said. “Public health education shouldn’t just be about research and garnering knowledge. We need to translate those programs into impactful solutions versus just publishing papers and books. We need practical solutions in order to instill a greater community impact.”

So, how does that actually work? For Dr. Joshi, it all begins with giving the youth the knowledge and tools necessary to address public health challenges.

Empowering young people

“Investing in the young people’s health and well-being is essential to economic growth and social change,” Dr. Joshi emphasized. “The community may be facing public health issues on a daily basis, and yet they may not understand that these are public health concerns. So, we want to enhance the youth’s understanding of the field of public health early on — and also help them see how they can choose a career in public health without having to necessarily become a physician or a nurse.”

One major step forward here is the dual enrollment program at the School of Public Health, which expedites high school students into the realm of public health by allowing them to take college courses — everything from Population Health and Society to Health Data Analytics and Informatics — and get a sneak-peek into an interdisciplinary approach that can open doors for them within various careers in healthcare, government, non-profits, and more. They can also transfer any credits earned toward their bachelor’s degree if they choose to attend the School of Public Health at the University of Memphis.

Pragmatically, Dr. Joshi sees young people as important drivers of public health who can bring back what they learn to their families and communities to help galvanize change, allowing their educational pursuit to go beyond academia.

“The youth are the biggest contributors to public growth,” he pointed out. “Think about it this way: If the youth are dealing with obesity, substance abuse, alcohol, smoking, mental health issues, or even motorcycle accidents, those are early triggers that can inhibit their growth — and hence the positive growth of the general public. They can delve into this before becoming undergrads since it’s all surrounding them already.”

Furthermore, Dr. Joshi wants to equip young people with a strong sense for innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit so they consider solution-based ideas. “We’re building a model for public health education in high schools with a multi-pronged system,” he said. “There’s the dual enrollment, and then there’s also public health clubs (just like how you have robotics clubs and chess clubs), where students can contribute to community awareness campaigns, like about hypertension.”

And then, there are the hackathons. “The goal is to not just identify the issues, but to address them and resolve them — to be solution-providers,” Dr. Joshi said. “We’re living in a data-rich environment, so we need to analyze that data. As an example, if we see lots of accidents, and if the youth are drivers of that, they can go into their communities and discuss how to resolve the issue with their peers. Hackathons are a way to challenge the youth to come up with big, bold ideas on how to solve the emerging challenges of public health in the 21st century.”

From Memphis to the rest of the world

Dr. Joshi perceives the prioritizing of the public health problems in Memphis as a duty of the School of Public Health. But, again, the push is to go beyond the university walls, as the School of Public Health is extending itself to actively collaborate with other organizations including the health department, veteran affairs, the fire department, the school system, and the juvenile court system — rather than just with hospitals.

Meanwhile, given how Memphis has some of the worst socio-economic disparities and social determinants of health in the nation, Dr. Joshi knows that a forward-thinking public health program can have a big impact on the local community — and this can potentially set an example for other programs around the globe.

“We’re living in an interconnected world with similar problems and potentially similar solutions,” he said. “Yes, the underlying factors and causes may be different in Memphis and, say, Nigeria, but the public health issues of income, housing, poverty, and the environment can be universal. So, we can think about ‘glocalization’ here, which is a concept that goes from global to local and vice versa, and we can help the youth gather inspiration from how other countries are addressing public health problems and apply that locally.”

The University of Memphis is creating a system that aims to revolutionize the paradigm of public health education — committing itself to go beyond its own boundaries and beyond the health sector.

“It’s not just about creating a workforce or doling out degrees,” Dr. Joshi said. “We have a much larger responsibility as public-health educators. We need to be more creative, dynamic, and entrepreneurial. In an aging society, we need a new community of learners to re-envision, revolutionize, and eventually lead the field of public health.”

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