August 17, 2010 | last updated May 29, 2012 9:35 pm

Q&A talks health careers with Ralph Mueller, dean of the College of Education, Nursing and Health Professions at the University of Hartford. | Advancing health education

Q. You were one of the driving forces behind the recent clinical partnership agreement between the University of Hartford and Saint Francis Medical Center. Could you explain what that partnership entails and how it benefits both sides?

A. The agreement that was signed on June 24, is really the culmination of a long history of collaboration between the two institutions. For many years, faculty members from the University's College of Engineering, Technology, and Architecture (CETA) and the College of Education, Nursing and Health Professions (ENHP) have nurtured productive relations with their counterparts at Saint Francis. Fortunately for me as the new dean of ENHP, the timing was right this year to formalize existing relations and to expand opportunities for our departments of nursing, physical therapy, and health sciences. During my first semester on campus, I proposed to the ENHP faculty that we anchor the college more firmly in the Hartford community. Our partnership with Saint Francis serves as the first tangible step in that direction.

The agreement represents a joint desire to enter into a broad, adaptable, and multi-disciplinary partnership. This will include initiatives on clinical training for University students, continuing education for Saint Francis faculty and staff, strategic joint curriculum development and faculty hires, as well as research production and funding. It really is a win-win situation for both institutions because we will utilize, without unnecessary duplication, each other's strengths and resources, ranging from exchanging faculty expertise to sharing equipment and teaching/research facilities. On the research front in particular, I envision exciting collaborations through ENHP's Center for Health, Care, and Well-being. This University-chartered research center was created in 2010 with a focus on positive outcomes in clinical care, therapies, and the promotion of wellness. This fall, the center and Saint Francis will co-sponsor the first collaborative competition for funds to conduct balance and mobility research, specifically targeted toward increasing patient safety by preventing falls.

Q. The university is about to start a new master's degree program in prosthetics and orthotics. Why has the university started this program? What do graduates do with a master's in prosthetics and orthotics?

A. The Master of Science in Prosthetics and Orthotics (MSPO) program is built upon a distinguished past of health innovation in the Hartford area. For example, the Newington Children's Hospital first established its brace department during the first quarter of the 1900s and its internationally acclaimed clinical services offered improvements in the treatment of hip disorders. The new MSPO program was started in collaboration with the Newington Certificate Program and the Hanger Orthopedic Group, Inc. to offer preeminent graduate-level education and clinical training that embraces the tradition of innovation and excellence that is synonymous with the Newington name.

The program prepares professionals committed to improving the health and welfare of the public by promoting excellence in clinical practice, research, and education. Prosthetics and Orthotics (P&O) is a specialized allied health profession, combining a unique blend of clinical and technical skills to help individuals with disabilities lead more active and independent lives. P&O professionals have a broad knowledge base - bridging the biological, engineering, medical, and social sciences - that enables them to work with the entire spectrum of age groups and diagnoses. Prosthetists are trained to design, produce, and fit prostheses (artificial limbs) for individuals who have partial or total absence of a limb. Orthotists, by contrast, design and fit orthoses (orthopedic braces) to enhance function and provide care for patients who have disabling conditions of the limbs and spine. New design innovations and advances in technology are offering dramatic benefits to people who utilize prostheses or orthoses. For example, advanced prosthetic knees can be controlled by micro-processors to allow clients to have a more normal walking pattern. Braces equipped with Bluetooth devices can electronically interface with nerves to enhance motor control. This exciting combination of material science, engineering, and healthcare makes the prosthetist/orthotist a uniquely qualified member of today's health care team and places P&O practitioners in high demand.

Q. When you first started, you said, you plan to further the goal of shaping ENHP into a college known regionally and nationally. How do you achieve that?

A. Of course, no one can achieve such a goal alone. I was fortunate that leaders in the education, health, and business arenas have agreed to serve on a newly formed advisory board to lend their active support in writing ENHP's next chapter. The college's faculty, staff, and current students have provided valuable direction and input on how to proceed. All agreed that a first step in building a realistic infrastructure to implement the vision is to anchor the college more firmly and formally in the Hartford community. The affiliation agreement between the University and Saint Francis is one early indication of our continued and expanded local and regional commitment. Similarly, existing ties between ENHP and Hartford Public Schools and the Capitol Region Education Council have the clear potential to lead to more formal arrangements.

As a second step, ways must be created to offer the best possible academic programs that allow for the translation of knowledge into action. This "translational" nature of our work needs to permeate through teaching and research. But we also aim to learn from practical experiences to inform classroom and laboratory experiences. Thus, a cycle that translates theory into practice, and back, shapes our identity as a professional college. This past spring, the ENHP faculty unanimously supported the creation of the Institute for Translational Research in Education, Nursing, and Health Professions. Researchers representing ENHP departments and external partners will utilize the institute as an umbrella under which to conduct research through three distinct but integrated research centers, The Center for Learning and Professional Education; The Center for Health, Care, and Well-being; and The Center for Health and Education Policy. As of May 2010, these new research units have been officially chartered by the University and will begin their work this coming fall term.

Q. What are some of the challenges in the academic world when it comes to education and the health professions? Is student demand still strong for those academic fields?

A. For the past decade or so, various aspects of the education and health professions have been of interest and concern to politicians, policy makers, and the public at large. Whereas the education profession is slowly, but steadily, climbing out of a reputation of relatively low desirability and compensation, health-oriented careers like nursing have continued to enjoy relatively high appeal and remuneration. From a higher education context, the biggest challenge for education might be a convincing articulation and implementation of how best to train education professionals. For non-medical health-related departments, the largest challenge lies in the recruitment and retention of highly qualified faculty.

While the challenges facing education and health professions might be fundamentally different, successful university responses might turn out to be remarkably similar: One potential answer to both challenges could lie in the realization of the inherent translational nature of both professions. First, to remain competitive with alternative ways to obtain teacher/administrator certification, colleges need to continuously refine ways to translate academic knowledge effectively and efficiently into educational practice and, simultaneously, allow for the systematic incorporation of practical knowledge into their teaching and research. Second, to attract and keep first-class faculty in health-related departments, we might attempt to integrate our work more fully with heath-service institutions, allowing professionals to seamlessly transition back and forth, completing the cycle from academic theory to clinical practice, and back. With such mechanisms in place, we might further increase the already strong demand for those academic programs in the education and allied health fields that remain relevant to their constituents.

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