Multidisciplinary Approaches to Eliminate Disparities

2009 Institute for Public Health Conference Summary

Community and collaboration were the central themes of the Institute for Public Health at Washington University in St. Louis’ second annual symposium, titled “Multidisciplinary Approaches to Eliminate Disparities.” The conference also highlighted the multiple challenges, including a lack of adequate infrastructure, of conducting true transdisciplinary public health work.

“The conference clearly illustrated that we need to conceptualize and organize our work in different ways if we are going to reduce health disparities,” commented Edward F. Lawlor, founding director of the institute and dean of the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis. “All of us left to our own devices do great work, but we can have greater community impact if we are able to knit all of it together toward a common goal.”

Lawlor explained that in the coming year the institute would focus on doing just that: building an infrastructure to help implement the type of transdisciplinary public health work and related dissemination that he and the other institute scholars envision. This includes creating systems for data management, communication and collaboration. Working with the community will play a key part of this effort. He added that a work group on international health was underway and that an evaluation work group would be formed to assess the institute’s progress toward fulfilling its vision.

Leading Scholars Keynote

The conference opened with a welcome from deputy director of the institute and Neiss Gain Professor of Surgery at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Dr. Colditz introduced his longtime colleague, Felton Earls, a professor of human behavior and development at Harvard School of Public Health. Dr. Earls, along with Mary Carlson, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard, discussed his work in the area of collective efficacy, a more functional way of classifying neighborhoods that moves beyond demographics, and its impact on both public and private behavior. Examples included violence prevention in Chicago and HIV/AIDS education in Tanzania, Africa.

Bruce Lindsey, dean of architecture and the E. Desmond Lee Professor for Community Collaboration in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, and Bert van den Bergh, retired executive from Eli Lilly, closed the day with a presentation titled “Environment to Health, Illness to Wellness.” The presentation asserted that health is increasingly an environmental problem. Lindsey cited New York City’s Central Park as a public health project and challenged the group to look at St. Louis’ Forest Park in the same way.

The keynotes lectures bookended a panel discussion on public health issues, specifically obesity, facing children, youth and families.The panel featured experts in economics, genetics, medicine and public policy; and included both academic and community perspectives. Creating a clear “pathway to policy” change was called out as one of the key incentives that would need to be in place to encourage committed yet disparate group of individuals and organizations to work to address common issues and concerns.

Hoehner Receives Scholar Award

The institute also presented its first Outstanding Transdisciplinary Scholar Award to Christine Hoehner, MD, MSPH, assistant professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Dr. Hoehner is working with senior faculty at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, Brown School and School of Medicine, with input from community organizations like Beyond Housing, to conduct a Health Impact Assessment to identify health issues and disparities facing the Pagedale community.

Download speakers list (PDF).

Download poster presentations (PDF).

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