UT Southwestern is responding to added interest for public health from its students and the public in launching the Peter O’Donnell Jr. School of Public Health, which will welcome its first class of graduate students in 2023.
The school will be the first new graduate program at UTSW in 50 years and will add to the existing medical school, school of health professions, biomedical sciences graduate program. In 2024, UTSW will add a public health Ph.D. program as well. It will be located in existing space on campus
School officials didn’t have an exact class size for the first year but noted that around 20 medical students each year seek a master of public health degree on top of their medical degree. Right now, those students get their public health degree with the UTHealth School of Public Health. When the school opens, they will be able to get both degrees from UTSW.
North Texas is already home to other schools of public health, as UNT Health Science Center, UT Arlington, and UTHealth already have graduate public health programs. UTSW wants to establish a research-intensive program that leans on the data analytics and population health expertise already present at the medical center. There are nearly three dozen professors already at UTSW who have the skills to teach public health courses, but the school hopes to employ 150 professors for the school eventually.
UT Southwestern already plays a significant role in providing public health data for North Texas. During the pandemic, the school’s forecasting model continually predicted peaks and valleys in the case numbers, and the school’s Dallas Heart Study has more than 20 years of longitudinal data on the heart health of local residents.
“We’re going to be looking not only for the practice of public health in different domains but for the scholarship that goes along with our other schools,” says Dr. Gregory Fitz, professor of internal medicine and special assistant to the President. He is also chair of the search committee for the inaugural Dean of the Peter O’Donnell Jr. School of Public Health. “We hope that we’re going to be in a position to take advantage of some strengths in data sciences, electronic medical record computational work, to be able to predict disease trends, to be prepared for the management of these trends, and to act at the level of populations.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the interest and awareness in public health. The Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health found that applications to graduate public health programs grew by 40 percent during the pandemic. But Fitz says the plans for the public health expansions have been in the works for years at UTSW. The school has been expanding its data sciences and population health faculty, and UTSW’s proposal to the UT Board of Regents was approved in February to establish the school. The Texas Legislature chipped in $10 million of seed funding as a sign of support.
Last month, the school was the recipient of a $100 million gift from the O’Donnell Foundation, the largest to a public school of public health in the country and was the third-largest gift supporting any school of public health. The foundation has given $400 million to UTSW over the years. Most of that money will establish an endowment to provide stability to the school’s research and educational programs, and the rest will be used to recruit faculty and programs.
Fitz says the school is well-positioned to help with the public health shortage in the state. In Texas, 200 of the state’s 254 counties lack adequate public health resources, and UTSW’s connections to Parkland Health, Texas Health, the VA, Scottish Rite for Children, and Children’s Health will allow it to provide public health assistance to areas in North Texas that lack resources. The state is also building a behavioral health hospital that will partner with UTSW, adding to the program’s reach. “How might a school of public health play a role in improving mental health in the community?” Fitz asks.
Right now, there are no plans for adding space on campus, but Fitz says as the school grows to more than 100 students, new space will be necessary. Interim public health school dean and Chair of the Department of Population and Data Sciences, Dr. Celette Skinner, said that additional funds would eventually be raised for a dedicated campus building. “Space is the final frontier right now,” he says.
Skinner is serving as the interim leader of the school and her other duties, and UTSW is on the search for the school’s inaugural dean, who will have at their advantage a stable of talented and experienced faculty. “The challenge for the new dean is prioritizing and setting the goals and taking advantage of the many strengths that we already have at UT Southwestern,” Fitz says.
The program is not looking to be massive but is still hoping to impact the region significantly. “Our goal is going to be to emphasize the academic trajectory to look toward scientific and population health advances that are going to help us regionally and across Texas,” Fitz says.