Newswise — As a medically underserved, rural and impoverished state, New Mexico has many health care issues. One area is public health issues associated with mother and child health care.

The public health programs at New Mexico State University and the University of New Mexico are working together to increase the capacity of mother and child health professionals to directly address the public health issues in the communities where they live, which is essential to improving outcomes for New Mexico families and children.

Sue Forster-Cox, NMSU public health associate professor, and Kristine Tollestrup, UNM public health professor, have formed the New Mexico Maternal and Child Health Public Health Training Institute to provide training to maternal and child health practitioners. The five-year grant is funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration.

The purpose of the training institute is to improve the state’s maternal and child health workforce by strengthening its technical, scientific, managerial and leadership competencies and capabilities of the current and future public health workforce.

“Our program is unique in that we are going out to the underserved areas, including the border and tribal communities, and finding those people who are boots-on-the-ground working in maternal and child health care, rather than someone who is already in a public health master’s degree program,” Forster-Cox said.

“A lot of these people don’t necessarily understand what is public health,” she said. “So we want to let them know what public health is and how they can start making changes in their communities.”

“Our students include nurses, midwives and doulas, breastfeeding counselors and community health workers,” Tollestrup said. “The only requirement is that they have to be working in a maternal and child health profession and have a bachelor’s degree.”

The first of two cohorts has completed the two-year program to earn a graduate certificate in public health, with a concentration in maternal and child health. The second cohort began in January with 17 students.

The program combines online training with four in-person two-day workshops during the two years. During each semester an aspect of public health is addressed. The semester topics are essentials of public health, epidemiology, professional practice and leadership and management.

The students conclude their training with a research paper based on an emerging mother and child health issue in New Mexico.

Olowan DeHerrera, a public nurse consultant with the Indian Health Services in the Albuquerque area, said she wanted to expand her knowledge of public health, in particular mother and child health because her past training focused on geriatrics and mental health.

“I really wanted to round out my knowledge and experience so I’m able to bring this information to the communities where I work,” she said.

In her present career position where she serves 27 tribes and works with a mix of Indian Health Service, tribal and urban public health nurses, De Herrera has used the information from the classes to help develop a strategic plan’s vision and focus.

Savannah Gene, a program administrator with the Albuquerque Area Indian Health Board, said she learned the significance of developing strong mission statements and good values for a program that reflects the community.

“My passion as a person from the Navajo Nation is about working with tribal communities and helping reduce the disparities these communities experience,” she said. “Making sure the organization’s values reflect and respect the traditional indigenous values is important to me.”

“I learned how much socio-economical factors have an influence on infants and mothers, and how that then affects their health over their life span,” said recent graduate Pamela Sedillo, whose education has been in nutrition.

Learning more about maternal and child health attracted Robin Hayter, a lactation consultant in a birth center, to the program.

“I work in mother and child health care and it is a low-funded field, so we are always looking for grants,” Hayter said. “Through this program I learn how to analyze research data to ensure we use sound information while writing grant proposals.”

Another personal benefit for completing the program is that the graduates of the program may use the 12 credit hours they earned if they pursue a master’s degree in public health either as core classes or electives.