PHS in the News
On the Forefront of Public Health
What a difference a decade makes. Ten years after the UVa Health System launched the Department of Health Evaluation Sciences, issues concerning public health - devastating hurricanes, earthquakes, a flu pandemic - are all over the news. At the same time, the nature and scope of public health is changing in an increasingly interconnected world where more people have access to more information, and shifting populations and immigration patterns mean health threats that once remained isolated in a far-off place can now have serious implications "at home."
The UVa Health System is at the forefront of addressing public health issues, and its youngest department has a new name reflecting this role. As it celebrates 10 years of service, the Department of Health Evaluation Sciences officially redesignated itself the Department of Public Health Sciences.
For William A. Knaus, M.D., the department's founding chairman, the new name gets to the heart of its essential role. "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 says. "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."
University-wide involvement sets the department apart. "We serve as a 'glue' department. We bring together people from different parts of the Medical School and also unite those people with others in the University in multidisciplinary activities," he says. "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.
Among these 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 department's highly multidisciplinary approach, says assistant professor Wendy Cohn, Ph.D. She co-directs the program with Arthur T. Garson, Jr., M.D., M.P.H., vice president and dean of the 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 says. 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 we can better educate and more efficiently provide tailored health information for the most patients."
As director of the department's biostatistics and epidemiology division, professor Mark Conaway, Ph.D., 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. "Information presented to patients needs to be accurate, rigorously researched and to the point," he says. "People are more cognizant of the need for rigorous scientific studies of medical therapies and procedures."
UVa as a National Resource
Margaret Van Bree, M.H.A., Dr.P.H., 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 says.
Dean Garson believes the department 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 says. "The UVa Department of Public Health Sciences is a national resource that will provide a crucial bridge from science to practice."
--From the February 2006 issue of LINK, the UVa Health System Newsletter