UW News

November 9, 2006

A conversation with Patricia Wahl, dean of the School of Public Health and Community Medicine

Patricia Wahl, UW professor of biostatistics, has been dean of the School of Public Health and Community Medicine since 1999. This year, the School of Public Health and the School of Medicine jointly launched a new Department of Global Health. The school also includes the departments of biostatistics, environmental & occupational health sciences, epidemiology, health services, and pathobiology.

This month, Dean Wahl begins a two-year chairing the board of the Association of Schools of Public Health, a national association of 37 schools of public health.

Q: How do you define public health?

A: Public health affects everyone. Most people don’t think about public health because if it’s really working the way it should — that is, preventing people from having illnesses, diseases, and injuries — public health is invisible.

We protect people from risks they don’t even know exist. The water you drink is clean and pure due to continual monitoring by public health. The food you eat is certified by sanitary engineers; the daycare you take your children to has been licensed by public health. Public health monitors the air we breathe. In an emergency, public health is a key communication link for hospitals, other health care centers, and fire, police, and port security professionals.

In public health, we tend to focus on the community as a whole, setting up processes and strategies to prevent disease and injury for large populations.

We concentrate on changing behaviors and living/working conditions to prevent disease and injuries. We look at multiple determinants of health — from exposure to disease agents and chemical contacts, to social and behavioral factors such as addictive behaviors, to living and working conditions such as education, employment, socio-economic status, and access to health services.

These are all important determinants of health, as are policies that promote healthy lifestyles, which we also influence.

Q: What was your motivation for becoming a public health professional?

A: I am a biostatistician, and biostatistics is a core discipline of public health. But I often say I didn’t really get into public health until I became dean and realized there was more to public health than just biostatistics.

When I became dean, Mark Oberle, associate dean for public health practice, decided to educate me. We visited all 34 health departments in Washington to determine the needs of professionals in state and local public health agencies.

Since we are the only accredited school of public health west of Minnesota and north of Berkeley, we wanted to know how we could better serve the practitioners and professionals who work in local and state public health. So that was one way I really learned about public health, at least on the ground level.

Q: How did these visits change your perspective on public health?

A: What we learned from those visits was in fact the genesis of a global view of health.

What we saw in both rural areas in the state and in Seattle were public health agencies dealing with populations of people who were immigrants, refugees, migrants from all over the world.

In eastern Washington, there are East German immigrants, Russians, Ukrainians, etc. In southeastern Washington, you have Southeast Asians. In the Central Valley, you have Hispanics from Mexico, Central and South America, who then move to western Washington for the Christmas tree farming in the winter.

All of the local health departments were really challenged by the influx of these ethnic minority communities, who often didn’t have access to or were unaccustomed to private health care and so went to their local health departments for services.

And we also saw that the local health departments didn’t have the cross-cultural training or language ability that’s really necessary to approach people from these different countries around the world.

That’s when it became clear to me that there’s no such thing as international health or domestic health — it’s all global health. I also realized that the skills, tools, and strategies that students were learning in our very small international health program were needed by every student in our school — even if they end up working in local public health. So, public health for me became global at that point.

Q: With the global health focus, what’s your vision for the School of Public Health?

A: Within the next few years, our new Department of Global Health will give students throughout our school the opportunity to become aware of the many global challenges in the world and learn ways to address them.

The Department of Global Health will influence all of our departments and, I hope, all of the University in one way or another. It will show how global health problems affect us all and challenge us to work together collectively to solve them.

The new global health department, which is joint with the School of Medicine, presents an opportunity to bring medicine and public health together in research, education, and service in a way that has been needed and recommended for years.

Q: What’s in the pipeline for the School of Public Health?

A: One of the things I’m really excited about is that we’re moving toward offering more undergraduate educational opportunities in public health.

We already have a pathway in the Arts & Sciences General Studies major, which many undergraduates are excited about because it opens up career opportunities in public health. This is especially important because it has the potential to increase the diversity in both our student body and the public health profession.

We want to have students becoming public health professionals who are as diverse as the populations they will be called to serve. We still want to retain our strength as a graduate school, but this opportunity to bring undergraduates into public health will help meet the critical future workforce needs of local and state health departments.

Another area we’re expanding is the area of nutrition, because there’s an obesity epidemic that greatly concerns public health professionals.

We have a very good nutritional sciences program, and we’ve also hired an exercise specialist so that we can address some of the root causes and behavior problems associated with obesity. Our Center for Public Health Nutrition is a way to be responsive to the community and their questions about nutrition and exercise.

We’re also working with Washington State University’s Veterinary School to offer a joint master of public health and doctorate of veterinary medicine.

Working with the veterinary community is becoming increasingly important for public health because many of the emerging diseases, such as avian flu and mad cow disease, are coming from birds and animals.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge of your job?

A: The challenge is trying to do more with fewer resources. The School of Public Health is almost 85 percent funded on grants and contracts, as opposed to permanent state funds.

This means that few faculty in our school have even 50 percent tenure and most continually scramble to cover their salaries. An even bigger challenge for our School is campus space.

Currently our faculty are located in more than a dozen different places, most of which are in rental space or other institutions located off campus.

Q: What do you do for fun?

A: This is fun — meeting people, developing good relationships, and working in an environment with great leadership and colleagues. Clearly, there are good days and there are bad days — there are ups and downs with everything.

But when it stops being fun, I will leave. I also get away occasionally on weekends to go hiking or skiing in the wintertime.