What’s in a name?
The past and future of public health
Kay Taylor/Health System Media Services
By Shannon O. Wells
What a difference a decade makes. Ten years after the U.Va. Health System launched the Department of Health Evaluation Sciences, issues concerning public health — devastating hurricanes, earthquakes, a flu pandemic threat — are all over the news. An increasingly interconnected world where more people have access to more information is changing the nature and scope of public health concerns.
The U.Va. Health System is at the forefront of this sea change, and its youngest department has a new name to reflect its evolving mission. As it celebrates 10 years of service, the department is officially rechristening itself the Department of Public Health Sciences.
The department’s primary currency is information. Since it was established in November 1995, the Department of Health Evaluation Sciences has provided multidisciplinary scientific and analytical services to the Health System, the School of Medicine and the entire U.Va. community. Now the renamed Department of Public Health Sciences, or DPHS, is adapting this mission to fit today’s complex needs: it seeks to manage health-related data through creative approaches so individuals, clinicians, communities and policymakers can make informed and equitable choices.
For Dr. William Knaus, the department’s founding chairman, the new name gets to the heart of the essential role of DPHS. “We recognized that we weren’t so much evaluating health, but trying to get the right information to the right people at the right time so they can make better decisions,” he said. “The Public Health Sciences title represents this, but also very practically represents that there’s a real demand now for public health education in a number of fields.”
One example is the growing popularity of the department’s Master of Public Health degree program. Led by Ruth G. Bernheim, director of the DPHS Public Health and Public Policy division, the MPH attracts students throughout the University, particularly business and law students. And plans to design a five-year program for select undergraduate students are on the horizon, Knaus said.
This truly Universitywide involvement sets DPHS apart. “We serve as a ‘glue’ department,” he said. “We bring together people from different parts of the medical school and also unite those people with others in the University in multidisciplinary activities. We try to have a pulse on what is happening in medicine in the larger society. Our goal is to introduce and support some of these new initiatives,” he said.
Among numerous DPHS initiatives are Health Heritage, a software application that provides clinicians and patients with tools to collect and interpret family health and genetic history, and Tailored Educational Approaches for Consumer Health (TEACH), a pilot project that groups patients by individual characteristics and preferences to more precisely target health information and patient education.
Part of the Consumer Health Education Institute, TEACH is a prime example of the highly multidisciplinary DPHS approach, says assistant professor Wendy Cohn. She co-directs the program with Dr. Arthur T. Garson, vice president and dean of the U.Va. School of Medicine. “We have faculty members involved from the Curry School of Education, McIntire School of Commerce, the Center for Survey Research and the Department of Psychiatric Medicine — at least half-a-dozen different disciplines are represented,” Cohn said. “We have the capacity to bring together so many different skill sets and perspectives to address a problem.”
She describes TEACH as “very public health focused. It’s about how can we better educate and more efficiently provide tailored health information for the most patients.”
Information is, of course, available now in all shapes, sizes and degrees of accuracy. As director of the DPHS biostatistics and epidemiology division, professor Mark Conaway understands the importance of accessible and accurate information. The public, he says, is more aware of clinical trials and the research behind medical information these days. This includes increasing use of personal genetic information.
“Public awareness has changed in the past 10 to 15 years,” he said. “Information presented to patients needs to be accurate, rigorously researched and to the point. People are more cognizant of the need for rigorous scientific studies of medical therapies and procedures.”
Knaus is pleased with the department’s 10-year milestone this November. He concedes that the fresh emphasis on “public” health is influenced by larger societal forces: dramatic developments in genetics, globalization and the ability to cope with natural disasters among them. Shifting populations and immigration patterns mean health threats that once remained isolated in a far-off place can now have serious implications “at home.”
“It’s becoming clear that the role of medicine in society both for individuals and for public health is becoming larger,” he said. “These developments have put public health much more prominently on people’s radar screens, and we realize now that the relationship between it and society is changing.”
Margaret Van Bree, Medical Center chief operations officer, is enthused about the department’s ability to evolve with changing times and needs. “After 10 years of tireless work, research and innovation, it is exciting to introduce a fresh name that reflects the universal and dynamic nature of the department’s mission in this ‘century of biology,’” she said.
Dean Garson believes DPHS is well-positioned to serve a critical role in the regional community and beyond. “The health and protection of our population will assume increasing importance over the next decade.” he said. “The U.Va. Department of Public Health Sciences is a national resource that will provide a crucial bridge from science to practice.”