Medicine treats individual patients; public health looks at causes and prevention of disease. Public-health dean explains her work.

Dean Donna Arnett, Ph.D.

By Grace Colville
UKNow, University of Kentucky

Living in a pandemic has been an adjustment for everyone. Public health plays a larger role in the average person’s life now than it ever has before. But what exactly does that mean? The field of public health is constantly growing and changing, but one thing remains – public health exists to keep communities safe. Public health professionals exist to help others.

UKNow sat down with College of Public Health Dean Donna Arnett to discuss the different fields within public health and how each contributes to worldwide wellness. We also gathered input from Anna Hoover, assistant professor of preventive medicine and environmental health, and April Young, associate professor of epidemiology. (All have doctoral degrees.)

UKNow: In your words, what is public health?

Arnett: “I think the easiest description of public health that resonates with the minds of people who are not medical is that medicine is really all about treating an individual patient. Finding out what’s wrong with that patient, and then finding the right treatment option. In public health, we’re really trying to look at what causes diseases in populations, so that we can go about preventing those diseases. If you think about everything that touches a population, public health is in all of those areas.”

Hoover: “Public health supports communities, policymakers, and practitioners in developing and using tools to minimize disease and improve wellness. In short, public health strives to protect health among people and communities around the world.”

Young: “Public health inherently recognizes that the world is connected and that the health of one community inherently affects the health of others.”

UKNow: How is the work of your field helping the people of Kentucky?

Young: “Kentucky has been an epicenter of the substance-use epidemic for decades. We are working to reduce the harms associated with substance use, support entry into treatment, and meet people who use drugs where they are without judgment to address their most pressing needs. We have witnessed an unprecedented surge in overdoses during the Covid pandemic, and our team has been working to address these. We have fast-tracked efforts to provide overdose education and naloxone (Narcan) to people at highest risk for overdose.

Arnett: “We’re very strong in the areas of both cancer prevention and epidemiology, as well as in substance-use disorders. The issues that we face in Kentucky from a health perspective are so dramatic. From Eastern to Western Kentucky, we have a 10-year difference in life expectancy on average. So having that much disparity in health in our commonwealth really does provide this natural laboratory to do this kind of research.”

Hoover: “In Kentucky, multidisciplinary environmental-health teams are working statewide to identify community concerns, understand how environmental exposures may be contributing to those concerns, and help develop strategies to minimize environmental impacts on health. For example, NIH-funded researchers are studying how we can detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus in wastewater to help inform community testing and mitigation strategies; how to identify and reduce potential exposure to disinfection byproducts in rural water systems; and how to empower residents to detect and reduce radon in their homes.”

UKNow: How has the work in your field impacted the fight against Covid-19?

Hoover: “Since environmental health is inherently an interdisciplinary field that brings together bench scientists, population-health researchers, civil and environmental engineers, and clinicians, our field has been ideally suited to study and address the complexities of Covid-19 transmission. Additionally, environmental-health scientists and practitioners have a great deal of experience translating scientific findings to a variety of audiences, including other researchers, policymakers, health-care workers and community members.”

The College of Public Health has six main departments: BiostatisticsEpidemiologyGerontologyHealth, Behavior & SocietyHealth Management & Policy and Preventive Medicine & Environmental Health.

Arnett says her work as nurse led her to epidemiology.

“That’s where I discovered and fell in love with research, specifically epidemiology research,” she said. “Epidemiology is the foundational science of public health. It really teaches you how to design research studies, and how to ask questions and answer them in a valid way. It was my ‘light bulb’ moment.”

Arnett says just about any undergraduate degree can lead to a career in public health. Now more than ever, the field of public health needs workers committed to making big changes in their communities. At its core, public health is about people.

“The goal is always the same – to improve the health of the communities we serve.”

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