Guidelines for MPH Programs in Canada
The need to strengthen the capacity of Canada's public health system has been a recurrent theme of recent reviews and reports. As a result, a number of academic institutions are at various stages of planning/implementing professional master's level training programs in public health (MPH programs).
The expanded training capacity is welcomed but is accompanied by an interest to ensure a sufficient level of consistency among these programs so that the MPH designation is useful and meaningful to students, employers and training programs.
In response to a rapid increase in the number of Canadian universities intending to offer MPH-typeFootnote 1 degree programs, a federal/provincial/territorial Public Health Human Resources Task Group (PHHRTG) oversaw the development of a set of voluntary guidelines for these programs in 2006.
The guidelines consist of criteria for a Master's of Public Health program, which are intended to identify critical program components. They are heavily influenced by existing accreditation and review criteria for such programs from other countries.
At the time of development, it was recognized that further attention would be required to address specific program criteria, such as the practicum. The practicum provides MPH students with an opportunity to apply knowledge and skills acquired in the program in a supervised public health practice setting.
In this revised edition of the MPH Guidelines, there are criteria specific to the practicum. They provide more detailed guidance on the structure and processes of the practicum component, and should be useful to MPH programs, employers, practicum supervisors and students alike. For example, these guidelines should lead to greater consistency in expectations for practica among programs, which may facilitate students being better able to access practica in other parts of the country.
Reflecting the scope of the parent MPH guidelines, the practicum guidelines focus on a generalist MPH program. Nevertheless, the content may be informative for practicum planning for specialist stream MPHs. While these practicum guidelines serve as a potential template for the development and review of practicum guidelines of individual MPH programs, such programs will likely wish to augment and tailor the guidelines to meet their own institutional needs.
The glossary, also new to this edition, defines terms that may differ among academic programs, but it also explains the somewhat confusing overlap among the terms “practicum,” “culminating experience” and “capstone project.”
Public health is society's response to threats to the collective health of its citizens. Public health practitioners work to enhance and protect the health of populations by identifying their health problems and needs, and providing programs and services to address these needs. Core public health system functions include population health assessment, health surveillance, disease and injury prevention, health promotion and health protection, including the capacity to prepare for and respond to public health emergencies.
A set of public health workforce core competencies has recently been developed in Canada (see Appendix 1). It provides an excellent overview of the range of knowledge, skills and abilities required of public health practitioners.
While we do not yet have a robust system to track either the careers of public health graduates or the precise demands for them in the workforce, graduates of MPH programs are usually employed within the governmental public health system at the local/regional, provincial/territorial, national or international level. They may also be employed by the non-governmental sector. An MPH degree is intended to provide a scientific and practical base for professional public health practice. The particular position in which a graduate may find employment is dependent on the skills and experience acquired prior to the MPH degree, the area of specialized focus of the MPH program, and the needs of the employing organization. In many organizations, graduate level training is often a requirement for career advancement.
Students entering MPH training often come from a variety of educational backgrounds. As with many applied graduate degrees, some previous experience provides a useful base upon which to acquire new knowledge and skills. In some situations, MPH training can also be a valuable preparatory step for entry into the workforce. For some areas of focus such as epidemiology, a master's degree is considered entry level training. Potential employers and MPH programs can provide guidance for individual situations.
Jointly, in late 2007, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research-Institute of Population and Public Health and the Public Health Agency of Canada launched an awards program for non-thesis Master's of Public Health students. Students enrolled in MPH programs who meet the criteria outlined in this document might be eligible for these awards.
The intended purpose of these guidelines is to support the development of MPH programs in this country with sufficient consistency and quality to meet the public health systems' needs and to ensure that Canadian programs are in keeping with international standards for graduate public health training. These guidelines may also serve as an interim step before more formal accreditation mechanisms are established. Nevertheless, they are guidelines, and as such, the criteria provided here are not intended to replace existing or emerging accreditation or review processes nor limit the flexibility and innovativeness of programs.
How these guidelines are used is stakeholder dependent. For academic institutions planning to deliver an MPH program, the guidelines provide a set of criteria against for which they can compare their plans. For prospective students, in the absence of a formal accreditation mechanism, the guidelines provide a set of criteria against which they can assess potential programs. For employers, the guidelines may influence decision-making regarding the provision of financial support for training or in assessing MPH graduate job applicants.
These guidelines will be updated periodically to reflect the experience gained from their use, as well as changes in workforce training needs.
An MPH or equivalent degree is a professional degree whose primary purpose is to prepare students for public health practice. It should give students a broad mastery of the subject matter and the methods used in the field of public health practice. It typically requires students to develop the capacity to organize, analyze, interpret and communicate knowledge in an applied manner. Furthermore, MPH graduates are expected to be able to apply knowledge in the assessment, planning, implementation and evaluation of policy and program interventions. In contrast, a researchFootnote 2 - oriented graduate degree program, based on its learning objectives and the paths its graduates follow, prepares students for scholarly careers, particularly in academia and other research settings; it typically prepares students to investigate, acquire, organize, analyze and disseminate new knowledge in a discipline or field of study.
There are two broad categories of MPH programs that may be offered, distinguished by their area of focus:
- Generalist MPH offers a course of study to provide the student with a sound academic background in order to practise competently as a generalist in public health.
- Specialized MPH offers one or more courses of study in selected areas of basic public health knowledge or closely related areas, sufficient to constitute an area of specialization. For example, a specialized MPH program may focus on areas such as health promotion, community nutrition, communicable disease control or applied epidemiology.
Individual programs must determine whether to provide a generalist MPH program, one or more specialized programs, or some combination of the two.
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