From the moment he read the first words of the job description, Daniel L. Howard, Ph.D., executive director of the Robert Wood Johnson Center for Health Policy at Meharry Medical College, knew that it was an opportunity to realize what had long been his dream. “I felt it was a perfect match. I went to school at Vanderbilt, so I was very familiar with Meharry, but my career goal was to continue and expand my policy work at a historically black medical school in an effort to add a dimension to social science research that does not exist anywhere in the country today,” Howard explained.
With a background in economics, policy program development and social work, Howard, who most recently ran the Institute for Health, Social and Community Research at Shaw University in North Carolina, came to Meharry Medical College (MMC) with a clear vision of the many components needed to create a health policy environment that would nurture students, develop faculty and someday produce groundbreaking research.
“Every project we have under way is designed to go beyond what we accomplish in the classroom and develop the next generation of African American health policy researchers who will explore new areas as they relate to disparities and improving health and health care in underserved communities,” Howard said. After Meharry Medical College received the $18.2 million Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) grant in 2009 to fund the Center, Howard and his colleagues got to work and are now beginning to see the early results of the academic and other programs that are currently underway at the Center.
“The first phase involved getting our education and training programs running and reaching out to students to help them understand what they can accomplish here and what we have to offer,” Howard said. “We have funding to support 19 students who will be pursuing a Ph.D. in economics, political science or sociology in partnership with Vanderbilt. Currently, three Ph.D. students have begun the program. As an outgrowth of that relationship, we will also fund six professorships within these departments; currently we have two professors on board in sociology,” he added.
“On the Meharry side, we have funding to support 50 students who will receive a health policy certificate, in addition to their M.D., D.D.S., Ph.D. or M.S.P.H. degrees. Our first certificate class of 10 students is currently working through a curriculum focused on the fundamentals of health policy, economic theory, epidemiology and an overview of the health care system,” Howard explained. “These students also participate in an externship program that sends them to the NAACP Health Policy Center, the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and other organizations, to work on a variety of issues in policy, health services research and disparities.”
In addition, two nationally-known scholars have been selected to provide health policy-related education to faculty and students. They began serving at MMC as visiting professors: Thomas LaVeist, Ph.D., director of the Center for Health Disparities at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and James Blumstein, L.L.C, director of the Vanderbilt University Health Policy Center. The Meharry Center has also awarded grants of $20,000 each to faculty from Meharry and Vanderbilt.
To greatly enhance the academic experience for certificate program students and give the broader Vanderbilt/Meharry community and the public an opportunity to learn about the most critical health policy issues of our time, the Meharry Center is also holding a 2011 National Scholars in Health Policy Seminar. The speaker series—which began in January and will run until May—features 10 leaders in health policy, disparities, economics, political science, sociology and health services research who will come to the Meharry campus to discuss the most important health-related policy issues in their fields.
“Because my charge is to develop a center of national significance, it was important to bring in scholars who could provide a comprehensive view of health policy issues across the country and across academic disciplines,” Howard said. “The speakers we have chosen include RWJF Investigator Award recipients James Jackson, Ph.D., (2009), director of the Institute for Social Research at the University Michigan; David Williams, Ph.D. (1994), a professor of public health and African American studies at the Harvard School of Public Health; and RWJF Clinical Scholar (1983-1985) Tim Carey, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,” Howard notes. “The topics range from medical malpractice and health policy and why African Americans are sicker and die younger to the implications of the Affordable Care Act on health care disparities.” The series will be live on the Internet and archived for general public access on the Meharry Center Web site.
Howard recognizes the importance of guiding and training tomorrow’s health policy scientists, but he is also acutely aware of the need to bring new voices and perspectives to the thousands of pages of health and social sciences research published in the United States each year.
“In addition to developing our academic programs, we are creating an infrastructure to generate policy analysis here,” Howard said. “We are gathering the resources to conduct social science and health policy research at Meharry, including primary data collection and survey research. We want to focus on a diverse range of underserved communities and pay close attention to those populations that are often neglected when research is planned or conducted. We will look at the black community, for example, here in Tennessee and around the country. These are people who are seldom asked about their needs and experiences. We want to initiate policy that brings a new perspective to the issues pertinent to these folks. Meharry and this Center are well-positioned to be a leader in this regard.”