The magazine of the UW School of Public Health

From the Dean

Public Health Remains Relevant: New Partners. New Tools.

Patricia Wahl

Every day, news reports remind us of the continued relevance of basic public health. We are called upon to deal with new and re-emerging infectious diseases; respond to outbreaks of food-borne illness, influenza, and old foes like measles and chicken pox; and monitor the quality of our air and water, among many other mandates. But public health is a dynamic field that is using new tools, forming new coalitions, and moving into new areas of research and assessment.

I mentioned public health systems research in my last message for Northwest Public Health. This is an evolving field of particular interest to Susan Allan, Director of our Northwest Center for Public Health Practice and editor-in-chief of this journal. The aim of public health systems research is to get the most out of the services public health provides by analyzing how our agencies are structured and financed, reviewing how our services are delivered, assessing our effectiveness, and sharing best practices—all to benefit the populations we serve.

Here in Seattle we're also in the forefront of evaluating health systems and their performance on the global scale through our Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). Again, the goal is achieving optimal results with limited resources. IHME monitors health outcomes—mortality rates, causes of death, disease burdens—and collects objective evidence about what works and what doesn't, thereby helping policymakers and funders make the most progress possible in global health.

Still another tool is being used more and more often to evaluate the potential health effects of a policy or project before it is implemented. Health Impact Assessments (HIAs) are similar to Environmental Impact Assessments, but HIAs are voluntary as well as regulatory. They can be conducted on a fast track or over several months, and they can cover a wide variety of community health issues. HIAs tend to be a community process that inform public policy making. As health considerations become an integral part of decision making, all interested parties learn more about public health and the interaction between health and development.

HIAs have the added benefit of creating new partnerships and forming new coalitions. This issue of Northwest Public Health points out a number of innovative programs and alliances. And when we consider the role that public health can play in designing and building healthier places to live and work, the possibilities seem limitless. Health outcomes ranging from obesity to asthma to injuries are affected by the built environment, by transportation systems and urban development. HIAs have the potential to change the very determinants of health, which in turn could lead to improved health outcomes. In any case, HIAs build upon public health's inherently interdisciplinary nature. They promote broad participation and give us the opportunity to join with colleagues in other disciplines to work on real-world problems from a community health perspective.

Through our Community-Oriented Public Health Practice MPH program, our School trains students to work in teams on those real-world issues, using problem-based case studies and practicum experiences in the field. This is an intensive teaching and learning style; it is also preferred by a growing number of students. So that's yet another way we're looking at change—staying on top of the new tools and methods that will best train today's students to become tomorrow's public health practitioners.

Patricia W. Wahl, Dean
UW School of Public Health