Training Health Policy Leaders Who Have Diverse Backgrounds and Perspectives

Fellowship program helps Latinos, American Indians and other underrepresented ethnic groups gain the social science expertise necessary for health services research that establishes them as leaders in health policy.

    • November 5, 2008

The Problem: The United States is experiencing an unprecedented demographic shift as the nation’s ethnic and racial diversity rapidly increases. In many areas, individuals from diverse backgrounds are no longer “minorities” in a numerical sense but remain underrepresented in terms of their political power and economic status. The health and health care needs of people from diverse ethnic backgrounds also are diverse. New leaders from underrepresented backgrounds with expertise in the social sciences need to be cultivated to bring fresh perspectives to health policy discussions in academic and policymaking settings.

The Proposal: In 2007, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) committed $18.5 million to establish a national Center for Health Policy at the University of New Mexico. The center serves as the physical, educational and cultural home for a new generation of Latino and Native American health policy leaders, providing them with support, training and research opportunities so they can participate in the development and implementation of national, state and tribal health policies.

Grantee Perspective: As executive director of the RWJF Center for Health Policy and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Professor of Family and Community Medicine and Economics, Robert Valdez, Ph.D., brings an impressive list of credentials from more than 25 years of health policy experience to the job. These credentials include: founding dean and professor of health policy and management at the Drexel University School of Public Health, professor at the University of California Los Angeles School of Public Health, and senior health scientist with RAND. He has served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health and as the Director of Interagency Health Policy in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and advised numerous presidents, governors and legislators around the country. Now he adds a special accolade, having been named in the October 2008 issue of Hispanic Business Magazine one of “100 Most Influentials.”

“I am delighted to see that my scholarly and public service contributions are considered worthy of recognition among this truly amazing community of leaders,” he says about the honor.

And in his new role, Valdez is helping to develop the next community of promising, diverse leaders in health policy.

Recognizing the changing demographic shift and the absence of diverse perspectives represented in the health policy debate, he says, “we are charged with helping to educate and train a new cadre of health policy leaders who come from those diverse communities and can play a major role in identifying problems in health and health care and ways of resolving these issues that are responsive to their communities’ needs.”

The program provides financial and academic support, as well as leadership training and research opportunities to Latino and American Indian doctoral candidates in the social sciences and nursing to explore the sociological, political and economic factors that affect health and health care. The program focuses specifically on non-clinicians.

“Physicians get instant credibility at the health policy table,” says Valdez, “whereas people in the social sciences gain credibility in health policy by developing and demonstrating expertise through research and knowledge-based advocacy.”

Graduate fellows and associate faculty are drawn from around the country to serve as researchers and mentors. The research topics they explored with funding in 2008 included racial and ethnic disparities related to teen pregnancy, payment for cancer prevention, school-based obesity prevention policies and diabetes lifestyle interventions.

The RWJF Center for Health Policy also plans on providing support to social science doctoral students from around the country who have an interest in health and health policy and have completed their academic studies, but not their dissertation. RWJF Center staff members are exploring ways to give financial and nonfinancial assistance (skill-based support such as statistical tutoring and writing coaches), and conduct leadership development seminars, so that these individuals can complete their degrees and be prepared to play a leadership role in health policy.

“We want to work with people who may be the first in their families pursing doctoral education—to whom the academic world can be a strange place—and create for them a supportive intellectual environment so they can accomplish their professional goals and become leaders in health policy circles,” says Valdez.

These new Ph.D.s can then join the ranks of health policy leaders who Valdez hopes will “broaden the framework of the health policy debates by having people think of the social determinants—political, sociological and economic factors—that contribute to the inequities in health and health care in our society, especially among Latinos and Native Americans.”

Valdez sees New Mexico, with “its racial and ethnic diversity and dramatic social and cultural milieu,” as an ideal place for the RWJF Center for Health Policy to be located. “We are in a state that is highly multicultural and, as such, the health and health care issues in New Mexico are a microcosm of the issues playing out across the nation,” he says.

RWJF Perspective: The RWJF Center for Health Policy at the University of New Mexico supports RWJF’s overall strategy to prepare underrepresented minorities to participate in and inform local and national health policy debates. Valdez has had a long association with the Foundation, having served on national advisory committees for the RWJF Health Policy Fellows Program, Investigator Awards in Health Policy Research and RWJF Scholars in Health Policy Research programs. “He is a recognized leader in health policy and brings to his position strong ties with the Native American and Latino community,” says Sallie Petrucci George, M.P.H., RWJF program officer.

Building on the University of New Mexico’s strong history of educating Latino and Native Americans, “the center will help train students and enrich research done by people with those diverse perspectives,” Petrucci George says. “We hope that RWJF Center students and faculty will serve as role models for other scientists from economics, political science and sociology. Fostering these connections will help address the critical need for expertise in developing comprehensive solutions for today’s challenging health policy problems.”