Developing an Academic Health Department in Northeast Tennessee: A Sustainable Approach Through Student Leadership

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In an effort to bridge the gap between public health practice and academia, the Health Resources and Services Administration–funded Tennessee Public Health Training Center (LIFEPATH) has supported establishment of an academic health department (AHD) involving the East Tennessee State University College of Public Health (COPH) and the Sullivan County Regional Health Department (SCRHD). The SCRHD identified a need to increase internal capacity to conduct ongoing community health assessment and community-centered practice. Similarly, the COPH recognized the need to expand evidence-based practice implementation and evaluation opportunities for public health students. Personnel from the SCRHD, LIFEPATH, and the COPH developed a formal AHD agreement during the summer of 2012 and launched the program the subsequent fall semester. One aspect of the COPH/SCRHD/LIFEPATH model that addresses financial barriers experienced by other AHDs is the competitive awarding of the coordinator position to a doctor of public health student from the COPH, demonstrating investment in the model by the college. The doctor of public health student gains leadership experience through project management, coordination of the local health council, and day-to-day facilitation of undergraduate and master's student interns. The SCRHD benefits from the formal academic background of graduate-level interns dedicated to working in the community. This AHD framework offers an opportunity for doctoral-level students to develop practical leadership skills in a health department while enhancing the capacity of the SCRHD and the COPH to serve their community and stakeholders.