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The Last Word

Putting Interdisciplinary Education
to Work

Courtney PaskellWhen I flipped through Albright’s recent Annual Report, and saw the College’s focus on interdisciplinary education, I was suddenly reminded why I chose an individualized study program (IDS) in biology and communications.

I went into my basement to dig out my original IDS proposal and see if the ideas I had in 1993 held true now in my professional career. I had to laugh at my foreshadowing. In the wisdom of my junior year at Albright, I wrote that the diversity of an IDS program would be an advantage for me. I also chose an IDS program to become a stronger writer. What’s ironic about this early wisdom is that I was right! The writing skills I honed in my IDS program helped me complete my graduate degree in health communication. In fact, the IDS program led me to the field in which I work - health care. Right now, the most interdisciplinary field in the country is health care.

I am the director of community health improvement for WellSpan Health in York, Pa. WellSpan is a two-hospital health system that serves a population of nearly 500,000 people and has more than 6,000 employees in York and Adams Counties. At our annual town meeting for employees, I listened to our CEO talk about the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to health care and how our mission statement remains centered around a broad definition of health. WellSpan agrees with the World Health Organization’s definition of health as a “state of complete physical, mental and social well- being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

In Community Health Improvement, we are challenged to address all of those health determinants. How do we get people to make healthier choices? First, by providing interdisciplinary health care. Interdisciplinary health care involves tailoring patient care by understanding the economic, psychological, social, religious, cultural and physical parameters that underlie how people make choices. Interdisciplinary education helps me listen. It helps me critically identify and respond to a patient’s readiness to change.

Responding to patients requires me to utilize interdisciplinary strategies. I first partner with community organizations to work at population-based health promotion strategies. Interdisciplinary studies help me choose what organizations need to be at the table to create social supports for behavior change. Human behavior is so intricate that no one strategy alone can be identified as the reason a person changes behavior. Effectively changing behavior requires a multifaceted approach – the literature now demands it.

“Interdisciplinary training helps me advocate for those lost in the health care system and those with no voice.”

– Courtney E. Paskell '94

For example, look at obesity and physical inactivity. We are in the midst of a new epidemic. Almost 61 percent of the nation is overweight or obese. If current trends continue, one in three children born in 2003 will develop Type 2 Diabetes. For health benefits, we’re supposed to get 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity on five or more days of the week. Getting people to make this commitment to better health is unbelievably challenging! There are so many barriers – motivation, time, stress, work, family… Patients tell me they just want to know what to do and how to do it.

Here comes that IDS program again. Telling the patient what to do and how to do it requires explicit communication. From individualized counseling for that patient, curriculum development and grant proposals, to strategic planning, speeches and presentations, knowing how to write well is essential. IDS training helps me teach underserved populations how to follow a treatment regimen, how to understand the maze of health care information, and how to understand the health care options available to them. Interdisciplinary training helps me advocate for those lost in the health care system and those with no voice.

And it’s not just patients that benefit from my IDS training. Community Health Improvement in a large non-profit health system like ours is always in need of a strong defense. When budgets are tight and resources are scarce, I lobby our system to maintain health promotion in response to our community’s needs.

I remember coming to Albright completely unsure of what my career path would be. I chose Albright over other colleges because you could be undecided and had the option to create what worked for you in an IDS program. You were (and still are) encouraged to be an interdisciplinary student. I took a lot of time looking for my strengths at Albright and crafting a program of study to set me up for success.

When training physical education teachers helps create a 40 percent increase in the cardiovascular fitness of students; when 1,001 underserved children get enrolled in health care coverage programs each year; and when the health system maintains a commitment to helping us help others, it is then that interdisciplinary study truly pays great dividends.

Courtney E. Paskell ’94
is director of
community health improvement
for WellSpan Health
in York, Pa.,
where she also resides.

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