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John Finnegan talks with two men.

School of Public Health Dean John Finnegan (right) conversed with colleagues in community and preventative medicine at Kafturba Medical College in Mangalore, India.

Partnering for public health

The School of Public Health hopes to enrich its knowledge base as it helps India establish a public health infrastructure

By Andrew Bacskai

August 10, 2006

"All public health is global--whatever happens in the smallest village of India should concern the smallest town in Minnesota," says John Finnegan, dean of the School of Public Health.

This is a message Finnegan emphasizes since his April visit to India where he and others from the University attended the opening ceremony of the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), a public-private partnership designed to build a much needed public health system in the country.

Finnegan's visit is part of the School of Public Health's initiative to help India establish a public health infrastructure. The University is expected to receive much in return from its involvement.

Kumar Belani, an anesthesiologist in the University's Medical School, agrees. "It superficially may appear that the Academic Health Center's relationship with India might benefit just India. That's not true," he says.

India, with a population of 1.2 billion people, is the world's second most populous country. It's also the largest democracy on the planet, and one of its fastest growing economies. In fact, over the span of roughly one generation, India has evolved from a developing nation into a post-industrial, knowledge-driven economy. It took the United States about 150 years to traverse that same development path.

Yet, as India's prosperity swells, so does its citizens' propensity for acquiring what Finnegan terms "diseases of modernization," such as hypertension, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.

"Students are exposed to virtually everything by doing a rotation there." --Kumar Belani

"In many ways, all eyes will be on India," Finnegan says. "How will they engineer the various aspects of public health? How do they engineer a health care system that cares for all its citizens? These are issues that the United States has had variable success with. And these are the issues India is going to face, and they're facing them on the level of a much larger population base."

For its part, the PHFI, which raised $80 million in start-up funds, aspires to build the schools and establish the programs necessary to train 10,000 public health professionals annually. The University's School of Public Health is determined to help the PHFI and the Indian government meet that goal.

First, the school is working with the Manipal Academy of Higher Education, one of India's leading academies of health sciences, to develop a twin degree program in public health. "We offer an accredited M.P.H. (Master of Public Health) program here; we'd like to allow that same degree to be offered there," says Finnegan, who expects the "twin" program to be in place in about a year.

In addition, the school is engaged in discussions with the Indian government about establishing an M.P.H. program in Chennai, located on India's southeast coast. The partnership, Finnegan says, will make it easier for University students to obtain valuable international experience, and enable faculty members to broaden their research arena. "We already have faculty and staff on the ground, working with investigators in India on joint research projects," he says. One joint project, for example, studies children's and adolescent health in India; another focuses on the effects of tobacco use on Indian populations and possible solutions to that escalating problem.

And, medical students have been spending rotations there since the late 1990s. Belani, with the help of colleagues Jonathan Ravdin, Paul Quie, and Phillip Peterson, has worked with the Medical School's International Medical Education and Research Office to provide opportunities for two to four medical school students to spend four to eight weeks at Belani's alma mater, St. John's National Academy of Health Sciences in Bangalore. "Students are exposed to virtually everything by doing a rotation there," Belani says. As India navigates the public health pitfalls of its telescoped period of modernization, the University can both help and learn much from the process.

"India has much to offer us," Finnegan says.