Online courses prep those in line to aid global health

November 1, 2017

College student sitting on bed looking at computer

Pandemics, poverty, climate change and natural disasters that threaten global health intrigue a UC community that tends to be worldly, inquisitive and determined to fix.

But before UC students run to research and solve, they must walk through the many complex factors and features that characterize global health today.

Online courses – launched this fall by the UC Global Health Institute (UCGHI) and the university’s Innovative Learning Technology Initiative (ILTI) – offer undergraduates throughout UC opportunities to explore a discipline that is growing in popularity. The suite of courses – two this fall and four more later in the year – may set many on career paths in global health.

The UCGHI classes are the first system-wide suite of online courses offered by UC, and the UCGHI and ILTI partnership has the potential to connect renowned global health faculty with students from all 10 campuses.

“Undergraduate interest in global health seems to be mushrooming everywhere,” said Oladele Ogunseitan, PhD, MPH, professor of public health and social ecology and founding chair of the Department of Population Health and Disease Prevention at UC Irvine. “Non-profits and philanthropic organizations that focus on health crises internationally have had a tremendous impact on young people.”

“Health problems around the world are more and more visible,” agreed Thomas Csordas, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and founding director of the Global Health Program at UC San Diego. “An influx of more people with energy and passion for global health can make a difference in the world.”

Ogunseitan and Csordas co-created and co-direct the inaugural UC online course – “Introduction to Global Health" – which has 140 students.

“I decided to take this course because I knew health was something that every human being shared, but I wasn't sure how it related on the global scale,” said Jennifer Truong, a UC Irvine second-year student who is considering switching her major from political science to public health or biology. “I do anticipate a greater global health interest in my future. I think it is one of the courses that everyone should take to have a better understanding of health and its connection with the world.”

A goal of the course is to have students understand fully, the “global burden of disease,” said Csordas.

In one quarter, the course coverage includes:

  • The varieties of health beliefs and practices in different countries, cultures and religions;
  • World response to pandemics and natural and human-caused disasters;
  • Mental issues and why they are the highest sources of illness and disabilities worldwide;
  • Disease prevention and eradication, for example, smallpox, polio and national action plans on mercury poisoning;
  • Clinical care and therapeutics, such as the United Nations Global Action Plan on Antimicrobial Resistance.

But this course is much more than online lectures and required reading. The “virtual learning quadrangle” (research, reveal, reflect and reform) allows students to share ideas and research findings and collaborate in problem-solving activities.

“I really like how this course is structured because we can actively engage and drive the direction of our learning instead of passively listening and absorbing material," said Truong

And there is large emphasis on pondering solutions to global health problems. Assignments include imagining appointment as a minister of health and developing a national action plan to prevent or eradicate a disease.

Examining ethical issues

For students who are already considering research, policy or clinical work in global health, UCGHI and ILTI this fall offered an upper division online course, “Ethics in Global Health.”

“In our rush to save the world, we want to make sure we do things the right way,” said Ogunseitan whose own research explores environmental and human health effects of industrial development and preventing diseases caused by pollutants. “Even with the best of intentions, some solutions are not acceptable, and even potentially harmful.”

Ogunseitan created the ethics course with Homero E. del Pino, PhD, MA, MSc, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at UCLA’s Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science.

The course defines health ethics that transcend national boundaries; delves into differences between ethical, social and personal values in health; addresses community engagement; and shows examples of sound ethical practice in global health emergencies, pandemics and disasters, including research, surveillance and patient care.

Future offerings

The suite of online courses for this academic year demonstrates the breadth and urgency of global health as a discipline. In future quarters, UCGHI and ILTI will offer courses on “Poverty and Development,” “Migration and Health,” “Population Geography, Health and the Environment” and “Climate Change and Disaster Development.” Additional courses in design include “Foundations of Epidemiology” and “Women’s Health, Gender and Empowerment.”

Like this fall’s introduction and ethics courses, the upcoming offerings are designed and directed by top global health faculty in the UC system and world.

The hope is to eventually provide courses for a global health minor at each UC campus, said Csordas. In the meantime, the online courses are valuable to those at campuses that do not offer global health courses.

And global health is attracting students, not just those interested in public health, but in a variety of disciplines – from economics to engineering and international studies to computer science. “When we (at UC San Diego) first offered global health as a minor, we got students from a wide variety of majors and now have over 200 majors of our own,” said Csordas. “The courses are bound to thrive across all our campuses as interest in global health expands.”

Footsteps to follow

Students enrolled in the online courses connect not only with top global health faculty and researchers, but also with peers who were at academic crossroads just a few years ago.

Tamara Jimah, a UC Irvine PhD student in public health (with a global health concentration), is a teaching assistant for the current Introduction to Global Health course. “My experiences growing up in Bawku, one of the most impoverished towns in northern Ghana, and witnessing the positive changes that were gradually taking place as a result of health initiatives inspired me to pursue advanced studies in global health,” she said.

Her career goal is to work with governments, international and local organizations to solve health problems in vulnerable communities. “I also aspire to work in academia and mentor future students interested in pursuing a career in global health and development,” said Jimah.

“The quarter has just begun; however, it has been great reading students’ assignments—their critical analyses and perspectives on the diverse global health issues we face today,” she said. “This is a really great opportunity for students and teachers to learn from one another.”

Mckenzie Piper, a first-year graduate student in UC Irvine’s Masters in Public Health program, is also a teaching assistant and reader for the Introduction to Global Health course. Her career path points to clinical and community health care, and she hopes to work in a developing country.

“Diseases travel from country to country,” she said. “The health of countries affects their economy, freedom, livelihood and more.

“This course enables students to be more cognizant of the health of other populations and communities around the world,” said Piper. “The students are exposed to so much information. It is a great way to learn a lot about health concerns on the global level.”