Healthy People, Healthy Planet

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

In 1918, when the Spanish flu struck millions across the world and thousands here in Washington, the University led the local response, training registered nurses to alleviate the health crisis. Over the next century, the school increased its public health efforts, educating generations of medical providers, social workers and health scientists.

Now the University’s efforts and expertise culminate in the new Population Health Initiative, a broad, cross-disciplinary approach to the conditions that affect the health and well being of people everywhere. When UW President Ana Mari Cauce announced the initiative last spring, she explained that it would be a 25-year vision that builds on existing research, teaching and service to focus on three broad areas: preventing disease and afflictions, building environmental resiliency, and seeking social and economic equity.

“It’s a natural area for us to lead—to truly be best in the world—because of the amazing strengths within the UW and in our community, ” Cauce said in a recent campuswide address. Neither microbes nor pollution nor political problems recognize lines on a map, she said. That is why the University must work with partners close to home and across the world.

With a gift of $210 million, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation became the first to endorse the vision. The investment will provide a new building to house the Department of Global Health, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, and portions of the School of Public Health, bringing together units and researchers from sites around Seattle. As a convening space for students, faculty and trainees from a wide range of disciplines, the structure will facilitate the exchange of ideas, development of projects and training for people working to advance population health locally and globally.

“The UW has long been a partner in our foundation’s global health and development efforts,” said Bill Gates when news of the gift came out in October. “This grant underscores our confidence in the school’s students, faculty and multidisciplinary resources to advance their Population Health Initiative.”

Faculty, students and collaborators already addressing issues like human health, equity and climate change are eager to move forward in collaborations that could change public policy and provide interventions and innovations for people to live longer, healthier lives. “I’ve been at the UW since 2008, and I’ve never seen such energy and engagement around any topic such as this one,” said Ali Mokdad, an epidemiologist and professor of global health. “You realize what great things the UW is already doing in population health. Also, we are so lucky to have the network and connections with our efforts locally and globally to solve these big problems.”

With partners and projects in more than 130 countries, the University is primed to be the global hub for this work. “But no problem can be solved by one discipline alone,” said Thaisa Way, an urban landscape historian on the team of UW leaders and faculty developing the school’s 25-year plan. While the health sciences are at the heart of solving the world’s health problems, they need the help of their colleagues across campus, said Way. “We’re looking to the arts and humanities and social sciences. No one discipline can either frame a question or answer it.”

The new building for Population Health, which will open on the UW Seattle campus in 2020, “puts us in one place so we can convene and move forward,” said Mokdad. “It’s about vision, about changing the way we do education, and about the way we evaluate our work from idea to implementation, helping us move faster to find solutions.”

See full story on page 12 of Columns, the University of Washington Alumni Magazine.