Community colleges have an important role to play in the education of public health workers who understand the communities they serve, state public health commissioner Cheryl Bartlett said last week.
Before a conference room full of people at HCC, the majority of whom work in public health, Bartlett said DPH is trying to develop credentials for community health workers. A critical aspect of such work, she said, is the cultivation of "front line" health workers who have the background of the community they're working in to help with language and other cultural barriers.
"I think that the community college is an ideal way to help provide that core curriculum ... ," she said. "There has to be some consistency in training and credentials. ... I think this is definitely an area that has great opportunity."
Bartlett stopped at Holyoke Community College Friday, Nov. 15, for the latest in a series of "community dialogues" she is leading around the state, introducing herself, talking about the goals and initiatives of DPH and soliciting advice.
"We want to partner with you more closely," she said, "and hopefully today we will get some feedback from you about how we can do that."
Bartlett was introduced by Holyoke mayor Alex Morse, who talked about the city's own initiatives to strengthen public health, such as launching a needle exchange program and instituting a comprehensive education program to address teenage pregnancy.
"Today's conversation is really about how the commissioner and the department can work together with organizations here in the city and across western Massachusetts," Morse said. "That way we can leverage each other's expertise and make sure we're really making an impact."
Bartlett is the first nurse to lead DPH and brings a strong focus on community health to the job, she said.
"I'm really excited to bring a holistic approach to public health," she said. "We want to know what's unique about your community and how best we can serve you."
Rebecca Lewis, who coordinates HCC's Foundations of Health program, said Bartlett's visit couldn't have been more timely. In the spring, HCC will for the first time offer a course that focuses on public health, Health 215, Introduction to Public Health. The goal of the course is to facilitate student interest in public health and then ease transfer to public health programs, such as those at American International College and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
She said two of the communities that have the greatest public health needs are Holyoke and Springfield and HCC draws a significant proportion of its student body from those two cities.
"We can do a better job on campus to raise awareness among students about career pathways related to public health and helping our students connect with employers in public health," she said.
Photos: (Left) Cheryl Bartlett, commission of the state Dept. of Public Health, talks to Jeffrey Hayden (center), HCC vice president of Business and Community Service, and Ken White, dean of Community Service. (Right) Barlett talks to Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse. (Thumbnail) DPH Commissioner Cheryl Bartlett.