Population Health

April 6, 2021

Spotlight: Ali Rowhani-Rahbar’s pivot to firearm-related injury and crime research

Image of Ali Rowhani-RahbarDr. Ali Rowhani-Rahbar has devoted much of his career to preventing and reducing the lethality and recurrence of interpersonal violence and self-directed harm.

Born and raised in Iran, Rowhani-Rahbar began his career by earning a medical degree from Mashhad University of Medical Sciences in 2002. While in medical school, he completed his dissertation on the prevalence of bloodborne infections among incarcerated injection drug users in Iran. This work piqued his interest in population health, allowing him to recognize the intersection between epidemiology and social justice issues.

“What I learned in medical school was that I really appreciated the population health approach,” Rowhani-Rahbar said. “I recognized that was something that I could contribute to and was very passionate about.”

Soon after, Rowhani-Rahbar applied to Yale University, pursuing an M.P.H. After graduating in 2005, he came to the University of Washington to earn his Ph.D. in epidemiology.

“Through epidemiology, you inevitably are exposed to the idea of social justice and issues of inequities, especially among underserved populations,” Rowhani-Rahbar said. “I was exposed to these ideas while actively working on infectious diseases.”

By the fall of 2012, Rowhani-Rahbar was an assistant professor of epidemiology at the UW.

Then, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting occurred in December 2012 and altered the course of Rowhani-Rahbar’s work.

“The Sandy Hook massacre was really eye-opening for me,” Rowhani-Rahbar said. “Gun violence was something that was always on my radar in terms of its profound impact on health, but it wasn’t something I had actively worked on in my scholarship, research, or teaching.”

Rowhani-Rahbar pivoted his work from focusing on infectious diseases to studying firearm-related injury and crime.

Through funding provided by the Seattle City Council, Rowhani-Rahbar and colleagues at the UW Harborview Injury Prevention Research Center began researching gun violence.

“After this, I didn’t look back because I felt the work was just so profoundly needed and rewarding,” Rowhani-Rahbar said.

A subsequent research project, “Lethal Means Assessment in Psychiatric Emergency Services for Suicide Prevention,” was awarded a Population Health Initiative pilot research grant in March 2018.

“Suicide is a major public health issue in the United States, and when you talk about suicide, in Washington State, about 50% are [caused by] firearms,” Rowhani-Rahbar said.

Through the Population Health Initiative pilot research grant, Rowhani-Rahbar and his colleagues formed an interdisciplinary team to analyze lethal means safety, a practice in which healthcare providers assess and reduce patients’ access to objects that can be used to inflict harm.

Examining the electronic health records of patients seen within Psychiatric Emergency Services over six years, the researchers assessed the frequency of documented lethal means assessments and evaluated characteristics of patient visits.

From this initial research and data collection, Rowhani-Rahbar and his team recognized lethal means documentation was suboptimal. The researchers’ findings were consistent with patterns of under-documentation across the nation, underscoring the importance of improving lethal means safety documentation and suicide prevention strategies.

Rowhani-Rahbar’s research findings have been highly influential and contributed to the national discourse on firearm safety and violence prevention. They recently led to the creation of new partnerships in statewide injury prevention outreach efforts and scaled into a larger research project that received a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Historically, this area of research has been poorly funded because of politics,” Rowhani-Rahbar said.

The politicization of gun violence research culminated in the 1996 Dickey Amendment. This law stipulated that the CDC could not utilize its funding to advocate or promote gun control. As a result, the CDC refrained from providing funding to research projects focused on gun violence for nearly two decades.

Rowhani-Rahbar’s gun violence study is among some of the first to be funded by the CDC following a 2018 revision to the law.

The study will focus on rural communities associated with high levels of firearm access and mortality, collecting data on developmental patterns of handgun carrying. Findings from this research will inform community-specific interventions and policies.

In addition to this CDC-funded study, Rowhani-Rahbar has also been involved in research throughout the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Rowhani-Rahbar’s research study, “COVID-19 and Civil Domestic Violence Protection Orders in King County: Implications for Population Health and Justice Equity,” was awarded a Population Health Initiative COVID-19 population health equity research grant.

“It was clear through conversations with our colleagues at the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and other community partners that [problems of unequal access to legal services] have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Rowhani-Rahbar said.

The researchers will analyze and compare the rate of civil domestic violence legal filings and their adjudication trajectory before and after the pandemic’s onset. The project aims to identify domestic violence survivors of color’s needs and bridge gaps in access to civil legal services to promote population health equity.

In addition to his ongoing research efforts, Rowhani-Rahbar was appointed as a Population Health Initiative Executive Council member in 2020.

He continues to serve as associate professor of epidemiology and is the Bartley Dobb Professor for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the UW. Additionally, he serves as Co-Director of the Firearm Injury & Policy Research Program, Leader of the Violence Prevention Section and Director of the Research Core at the Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center.