April 28, 2003

SORT-ing out real world experience

By Tia Webster

When the DeKalb County Board of Health needed assistance with a gastrointestinal outbreak at a local assisted care facility in January, they called the volunteers of SORT—the Student Outbreak Response Team, made up of 16 students from the Rollins School of Public Health. It was an opportunity for academia and local public health officials to meet face to face.

Last spring, Emory alumna Sara Forsting, ’01MPH, an epidemiologist at the DeKalb County Board of Health Center for Public Health Preparedness, began tossing around the idea of bringing the two entities together. Forsting modeled SORT after a program of the same name at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She contacted her alma mater and presented the idea to Ruth Berkelman, director of the Center for Public Health Preparedness and Research, who was enthusiastic and offered assistance.

In its pilot year, SORT already has given student volunteers hands-on experience in outbreak response and investigations, developing surveys, interviewing and contact tracing. For example, the students analyzed data from a smallpox consent evaluation project. And, in addition to offering extra hands, volunteers attend lectures and training sessions taught by public health officials and hear case studies from actual events in DeKalb County.

“The experience gives students a better understanding of how local public health operates as they apply their newly learned skills to real-life situations,” Forsting said. “They may even consider pursuing a career in local public health.”

“The students have a great deal of ownership of the program,” Berkelman added. “They provide the leadership and input on the structure because they know the concepts they have learned in the classroom that they want to strengthen with real experiences.”

Ariane Reeves, Forsting’s co-coordinator at the health department and a communicable disease registered nurse, also sees the program’s benefits.

“Those in academic public health are able to have contact with the pulse of their local community,” Reeves said. “Students are able to apply the theoretical concepts they have learned. In turn, local public health benefits from its ties to the academic institution by having surge capacity for immediate needs such as outbreaks and long-term needs such as special projects. Local public health also benefits from the easy access to high quality educational opportunities offered by academic public health.”

SORT is open to all students in Rollins’ master’s of public health program. Currently, there are epidemiology, international health and environmental health students participating.

While 16 students selected this year receive formal training, the partnership extends to all areas of the school because SORT often sponsors school-wide health discussions.

Recently, Rollins issued pagers to SORT participants to facilitate the DeKalb Board of Health contacting them, if necessary. But before students participate in outbreak
investigations or visit a site, they are provided with an overview of the situation, tasks that need to be completed and the methods by which to accomplish those tasks. The board provides instruction and materials for personal protection, including hygiene products and infection control.

“We are constantly keeping an eye out for situations where students can assist us,” Forsting said. “Since outbreaks are not planned, opportunities to assist can happen at any time.”

Mark Mueller, a SORT participant and second-year epidemiology student, said the most important accomplishment of the organization is to promote public health careers at the state and local level.

“This opportunity has allowed me to make an objective comparison of the mobility and experience I can achieve in a career at the local level versus the federal level,” Mueller said. “Students need to be reminded of the successful models of state and local public health agencies that are in their own backyard and the opportunities they can provide.”