Daniel Lopez knew he wanted to help his community, but he wasn’t sure how.
It took a class in public health sciences at Bakersfield College for him to realize his calling.
“I wanted to do something with health and help the community,” Lopez said. “That’s what it’s all about — helping the community and (providing) resources to those that need them.”
Lopez now works for the Kern County Behavioral Health and Services department as a health navigator, assisting those with substance abuse and mental health issues find their way through the maze that is the state’s complex healthcare system.
He helps eliminate barriers to care by explaining and guiding clients through the steps they need to take to receive health insurance coverage, assists in finding access to treatment and helps clients understand their illnesses and care plans. It’s an increasingly important job as healthcare organizations seek to enhance patient experience and reduce hospital readmissions for acute and chronic conditions.
Started about two years ago with the goal of producing more entry-level public health professionals in a region rife with population health struggles, Bakersfield College’s Public Health Sciences program is beginning to see the fruits of its labor. Lopez was among the program’s first graduates.
“What’s happening is that we’re finding that we have so many community health needs that are not being addressed,” said Bakersfield College Public Health Sciences Professor Sarah Baron said, adding that Kern County is projected to experience a shortage of public health workers by 2020.
“We need trained professionals,” Baron said.
BC’s public health program helps build toward healthy communities through education, research, and promotion of healthy lifestyles.
“Public Health basically focuses on community health,” Baron said.
BC’s Public Health Sciences program offers students career development opportunities through partnerships with local, community-based organizations and public agencies.
Students in the program choose from four different tracks including health promotion, health care administration, data analytics and environmental health science.
These different tracks teach students how to educate the community on health issues, work in hospitals and clinics, study trends and ensure the community remains healthy and sanitary.
“There are a ton of jobs in Kern County for this,” Baron said. “Our county really needs (these jobs).”
Despite the need for these jobs, the positions don’t seem to be getting filled, according to Baron. Meanwhile, Kern County faces staggering public health challenges.
Kern County is one of the highest ranking counties in the state for diabetes, sexually transmitted infections and chronic diseases, according to County Health Ranking and Roadmaps.
“Your chances of getting an STI is really high,” Baron said.
The Kern County Public Health Department found one in every four women between the ages of 18 and 25 has a STI, and roughly 80 percent of Medicare patients in Kern County between the ages of 65 and 75 have diabetes.
“When you look at Kern County statistics of the community health issues we’re facing, we want a public health program in our community that focuses on community health and population health,” Baron said.
Baron said it’s important to have an education infrastructure to support the public health needs and professionals in Kern.
Many students aren’t familiar with the program and the opportunities it comes with, Baron said, because Public Health Sciences isn’t a common major.
“You go up to San Francisco, you find multiple public health programs,” Baron said. “You go up to Northern California you find them, but there’s nothing in Kern County. Nothing.”
Lopez believes it is important to make a difference in all areas in the community.
“Find out what is going on in your community and just try to spread the information,” he said. “Just reach out to the community.”