When I joined Duke eight years ago as faculty in the Department of Community and Family Medicine’s Division of Community Health, after departing UNC School of Public Health, my career as a public health researcher focused mainly on leading community-engaged research interventions to address health inequities of underserved populations; over the years, I have become more heavily involved in health professions education and training. Today, many of my professional endeavors are focused on providing population health improvement training to health professionals using a community-engaged framework. One of the roles that I enjoy and cherish immensely is serving as Third Year PCLT Study Program Director – working with our students to build a meaningful third year research scholarly experience that involves a focus on population health improvement and incorporates a community-engaged dimension. I work with all PCLT students, starting in their first year, to orientate them to principles of community engagement along with community engaged research and its ethical considerations. As students move into their second year, I help to identify appropriate third year research study and mentor opportunities and recruit faculty across the Duke enterprise to serve as research mentors.
Initially, at Duke, I was asked to help lead efforts to design/revise population health curricula for various health professions education programs. Population health improvement refers to the goal of enhancing the health of all individuals within a population with an emphasis on addressing social determinants of heath, which includes health behaviors and socio-economic, environmental and policy factors. Historically, population health education was not commonly present in health professions curricula. The concepts that I helped to weave into the training of the various programs (i.e., family medicine residency program, PCLT curriculum, leadership development program for advanced practice nurses, master’s program in clinical leadership for interprofessional clinicians) were those with which I was very familiar as a PhD academician who resided in the world of social and behavioral sciences. They included topics such as identifying social determinants of health, conducting stakeholder assessments, collaborating with community stakeholders and mapping the impact of health services and health systems on population health. It became apparent that although many health professions students or faculty were trained to be excellent clinicians, their deftness in addressing population health in a complex and ever-changing health care environment had room for improvement. The community-engaged population improvement framework “language” that I was sharing with students or faculty was a new vocabulary for many – one that some needed longer time to embrace and recognize the relevance and value for their practice, their careers, and their communities. When that “light bulb” did switch on for learners, it reaffirmed my commitment to continue my health professions education career journey.
Today, I observe a growing movement among health professionals and students to understand and improve population health, both at our institution and in our local community. . An increased number of academic and community champions are aiming to address population health more efficiently and effectively to improve the health and well-being for all. The PCLT Program is part of this movement as it strives to develop insightful and inspiring primary care change agents for population health improvement. As one who started my professional life years ago working as a direct service provider in different community-based sectors with vulnerable populations (from ESL teacher to mental health clinical care manager) and being involved in community advocacy initiatives (from refugee health rights to HIV/AIDS policy reform), I am a strong believer in the power and value of working in collaboration with communities to make impactful and sustaining change in health and quality of life outcomes. For true population health improvement to occur, we must enable and empower health professionals to skillfully partner with others - health care sector and beyond- to tackle population health issues in a meaningful and impactful manner. Everyone’s health and well-being depends on it.