Saving lives at the intersection of science and social justice .
BY HEATHER BUSCHMAN , PHD ’ 08
Cheryl Anderson , PhD , MPH , was appointed founding dean of UC San Diego ’ s new Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science earlier this year .
An expert on dietary interventions to promote heart and kidney health , she also helped lead UC San Diego ’ s Return to Learn pilot program , which successfully determined that a number of in-person activities can occur on campus this fall through regular testing , along with other epidemic interventions such as contact tracing , self-isolation , and quarantine .
On entering the deanship during the COVID-19 pandemic and a surge in the Black Lives Matter movement , Anderson says it could not be a better time to focus on public health .
What is “ public health ”? How is it different than standard health care ? Rather than caring for one sick patient at a time , public health is the science of preventing disease , promoting health and improving quality of life while engaging entire communities and ensuring that we advance health equitably for all citizens . When public health is going well , nobody notices it — because we ’ ve prevented a crisis , the burden of disease , or deaths . COVID-19 is a public health crisis playing out in front of our eyes . The pandemic is an example of how public health touches everyone around the globe . We are trying to prevent further spread of the disease , and make sure people experience the benefits of epidemic interventions equitably .
What role does equity play in public health ? My first public health course in college gave me a framework to make sense of what I had seen growing up in a small town in Palm Beach County , Florida , where health disparities by race were obvious . Many policies that negatively impact a community ’ s health are steeped in a long history of racism , and they disproportionately affect Black , Indigenous , and other historically marginalized groups . When patients are seeking medical care , it ’ s important to think about upstream factors that might play a role in their situation — things like the zip code in which they live , learn , work , play , and pray , the ability to eat well and exercise , and exposure to tobacco or pollutants . In public health , we look at the broader policies and practices that might influence one community ’ s disease risk or health outcomes in a way that ’ s different from other communities . And what we see is that these policies don ’ t play out randomly or affect people equally . We are seeing this right now with the COVID-19 pandemic in San Diego . The infection and mortality rates are higher in certain zip codes and in Latinx and Asian Pacific Islander communities . Zip codes in which people are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 also tend to have fewer green spaces , fewer places to buy healthy foods , poorer air quality , and more marketing of tobacco and alcohol . On a neighborhood level , there are also higher rates of chronic diseases like high blood pressure , diabetes , heart disease ,