Office of the President

May 7, 2020

As the pandemic shows, Population Health Initiative is more relevant than ever

Ana Mari Cauce

When we launched the Population Health Initiative four years ago, one of the challenges we faced was making the case that it is critical to look at the health of whole communities, not just of the individuals within them. Now it is exceedingly clear that disease in anyone can all too rapidly become a threat to everyone, that our health literally rests in the hands of others. A population health perspective also entails viewing health through multiple and overlapping lenses. Environmental resilience and social and economic equity are just as essential to healthy people and communities as access to nutrition, medicine and healthcare. Today, as the world works to halt the spread of COVID-19, those interdependencies have become profoundly self-evident. The virus has proven more lethal to poor and marginalized communities, including communities of color, and environmental degradation is contributing to the rise in novel pathogens. The initiative’s mission to cultivate an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach to improving population health through the work and expertise of the UW is more relevant and urgent than ever.

Although the work of the Population Health Initiative goes far beyond our institution’s response to COVID-19, our strength across disciplines has been a key part of global efforts to understand, track and stop the spread of the pandemic. In just the last month, the expertise of more than 100 University of Washington faculty has been utilized in news coverage of the pandemic, from the health sciences, of course, but also in law and public policy, international relations, history, biology, psychology, economics and the Center for an Informed Public. Just as the virus has influenced every aspect of our individual lives and society as a whole, leveraging the knowledge and discovery from within and across all of these disciplines – and many more – is essential if we are serious about improving the health and well-being of ALL people.

As we begin looking at ways to safely reopen our communities and economy, the UW’s broad work in population health will play a vital role in aiding the recovery and preventing a crisis of this magnitude from reoccurring. Until there are proven therapies or a vaccine, the recovery is going continue to shape our society in significant ways. Just as the 9/11 attacks changed our approach to security, the COVID-19 crisis may require us to fundamentally rethink our approach to health. We must learn the lessons of this tragedy: address social and economic inequality, promote the values of our shared community, and invest in science, research, education and public health and health care to ensure the health and prosperity of our communities. Just last week, the Population Health Initiative awarded 21 grants totaling approximately $820,000 for COVID-19 rapid response research, the first of several steps the initiative is taking to support the pandemic response and recovery.

The fight against COIVID-19 fits within the broad vision of the initiative, which has been busy in other areas as well. Four rounds of faculty pilot grants have been awarded, yielding promising results in areas ranging from low-touch behavioral health interventions to climate change adaptation. Awards were also made for three population health faculty hires. Student education and training programs reached more than 3,000 undergraduate and graduate students last year and new partnerships continue to form. Other updates on the initiative’s progress can be found in the recent 2018-20 Report to the Community.

The work of the initiative will be amplified further with the opening of the Hans Rosling Center for Population Health on the Seattle campus later this year. This building will serve as a convening space for faculty and staff from a broad range of disciplines across the UW that are improving population health. The new center was made possible by a transformative gift from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as funds earmarked by the Washington State Legislature.

The Population Health Initiative is our University’s commitment to tackling large-scale health challenges. I am grateful for the incredible work of the initiative’s leaders as well as the outstanding research, scholarship, health care and service that advances the goals of the initiative from every corner of the UW. This crisis has underscored the need for effective leadership, and I see such leadership all around and at every level of our great public university. I look forward to collaborating with our many faculty, students and staff as we determine what the next phase of the initiative will entail in a recovering world. Our shared humanity has brought us this far – now that we see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, it’s our shared humanity that will get us to the other side.