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School of Public Health aims to make real-world impact

Interventions include mobile food markets in Providence, diabetes management in Samoa

Though it has only been three years since the School of Public Health opened its doors, it has already touched lives both locally and around the world.

The school’s mission is “to serve the community, the nation and the world,” according to its website. Through translating research findings into real-world interventions, faculty members and students have reached communities from Providence to Samoa.

Local partnerships

Among the school’s local initiatives is Food on the Move, a program that provides access to fresh fruits and vegetables to Rhode Islanders who live in food deserts, said Dean of the School of Public Health Terrie Fox Wetle. The program was piloted as the Fresh to You market, a study conducted by Kim Gans, adjunct professor of behavioral and social sciences. The study evaluated the effectiveness of such an approach in alleviating a lack of access to food, Fox said.

The program entails a mobile community market traveling to various locations across Providence every week to provide a reliable supply of groceries to a number of neighborhoods. The market stops outside the School of Public Health every Friday because the university is located in a food desert, Fox added.

When the study concluded and ran out of its funding from the National Cancer Institute, the School of Public Health decided to independently fund Food on the Move because it was too valuable to the community to discontinue, Fox said.

Food on the Move is implemented by the Rhode Island Public Health Institute, an organization led by Amy Nunn, associate professor of behavioral and social sciences. RIPHI partners with the school to develop public health programs and conduct translational research, Nunn said. Another campaign run by RIPHI is Do It Right, a sexually transmitted disease prevention clinic located in Miriam Hospital. The clinic provides screenings and interventions and stems from the research of Nunn and Philip Chan, assistant professor of medicine.

The school has also forged partnerships with a variety of local community organizations, including Progreso Latino, the Rhode Island Free Clinic, the Providence Housing Authority and Blue Cross Blue Shield, Fox said. Representatives from these groups serve on the school’s Community Advisory Board, she added.

“There is a long tradition in public health to reach out to communities that you’re studying,” Fox said. “It improves the quality of our research (and) the educational experience for our students, and (it) ensures that the projects are relevant and important.”

Focus on national policy

Another program managed by RIPHI, Do One Thing, was a product of Nunn’s research into the high rates of HIV and Hepatitis C in Philadelphia, Nunn said. Do One Thing mobilizes volunteers and healthcare professionals to conduct door-to-door screenings for the viruses in southwest Philadelphia, with the ultimate goal of directing people to treatment, according to the RIPHI website.

Many graduate students also participate in research projects that aim to inform national policy. Rachel Denlinger GS, a member of the school’s student council board, and Jennifer Tidey, professor of behavioral and social sciences, are researching the effects of different tobacco regulations on smoking behavior, Denlinger said. For example, reducing nicotine levels may affect how smokers with mental illness use cigarettes, she said.

Benjamin Silver GS, a member of the student council board, and Professor of Health Services, Policy and Practice Vincent Mor are studying the Medicare program. Specifically, they are examining how the healthcare system delivers different services, how these services are reimbursed and how different systems affect patient outcomes, Silver said.

Global projects

One of the school’s 12 research centers, the International Health Institute, specifically focuses on the school’s global reach. The IHI’s mission is “to apply interdisciplinary perspectives to research and training to improve the health of populations in developing countries,” according to the school’s website.

Stephen McGarvey, professor of epidemiology and director of the institute, conducts studies in Samoa and American Samoa. McGarvey examines how genetic influences and changing lifestyles have contributed to the high levels of obesity, type-two diabetes and hypertension in these populations, he said.

McGarvey’s research was conducted with the assistance of the American Samoa Department of Human and Social Services, he said. The study found that community health workers are effective in helping locals manage type-two diabetes, and these workers continue serving the population to this day, he added.

McGarvey has also worked with Mark Lurie, associate professor of epidemiology, on a project that studies migration patterns in South Africa and how they have contributed to the spread of HIV. Additionally, Lurie has examined how the increasing accessibility of antiretroviral therapy is affecting the HIV epidemic.

In developing these global studies, the School of Public Health has formed partnerships with governmental agencies, local organizations and other universities, including the University of Cape Town and the University of Ghana, McGarvey said.

Expanding national and global work

Because the School of Public Health is new and in the process of establishing its reputation, its national and global presence is currently limited, McGarvey said. The school is known mostly for its researchers and their projects — there have not yet been major investments in national or global initiatives other than providing support for these researchers, he added.

In order to build its reputation, the school must continue hiring and supporting researchers whose work impacts global health, McGarvey said. The school must also work with the administration to identify potential donors who can provide funding for professorships and projects, he added.

Nunn said the school always has “room to grow” and that she would be interested in researching how the Latinx community in Providence — which is 38.1 percent of the city’s population, according to the 2010 Census — can be better supported. But regardless of whether the School of Public Health aims to maintain its current size or expand to the levels of its older and more established peer institutions, the researchers assert their commitment to communicating with communities and promoting lifelong health.

“The things that happen to people as fetuses, as children, as teens and young adults have an impact later in life,” McGarvey said. “Following up on people and understanding that … an event earlier in your life may affect your risk for certain conditions is the point of our research.”

One of the most important public health concerns is helping populations age in a healthy way, Nunn said. “From a global perspective, I think we’re looking at the right issues,” she said. “Now that we’re a School of Public Health, there’s an opportunity to do a lot more.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the School of Public Health has 11 research centers. In fact, the school has 12. The Herald regrets the error. 


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