Perhaps nothing in recent years has underscored the need for a community-wide focus on public health more than the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet public health in practice and as a discipline encompasses more than infectious disease risk mitigation and awareness campaigns about the need to mask, socially distance and get vaccinated.
Public health promotes wellness on a broad scale throughout the lifespan and across generations and demographic groups.
From educating the general public about the benefits of good nutrition and exercise, to programs focused on workplace injury prevention, to important policy aimed at protecting people from unsafe food or drinking water — a public’s health hinges on how well a community prioritizes the physical and mental well-being of its populace. And it depends on the professionals charged with improving quality of life and reducing human harm and suffering.
Assessing regional health needs
Geographically at the center of South Texas, San Antonio likewise reflects the demographic future of the country, with a large and growing Hispanic population. The roughly 5 million residents who live within the 38-county service area of South Texas include those concentrated in bustling urban centers and scattered across underserved rural areas. Significant health challenges prevalent throughout the region include heart disease, cancer, diabetes and substance use disorders.
Recognizing the burgeoning health needs and persistent health disparities of the region, The University of Texas System Board of Regents paved the way in November 2021 to create an independent school of public health in San Antonio. In June 2022, the Bexar County Commissioners Court gave preliminary approval to award $10 million from the county’s American Rescue Plan Act funding toward development of The University of Texas School of Public Health San Antonio, a collaboration between UT Health San Antonio and The University of Texas at San Antonio. In July 2022, Vasan Ramachandran, MD, was appointed founding dean.
Building on established strengths
Each institution brings complementary strengths to the new school. Infectious diseases, cancer, epidemiology and behavioral health are among the research strengths of UT Health San Antonio, while UTSA contributes expertise in data sciences, kinesiology and demography, among other disciplines.
The new school will build on existing programming as new research and curriculum opportunities are identified to strengthen ties between the two institutions and create a steady pipeline of public health advocates, educators, researchers and care providers.
Transforming a public’s health
Inaugural dean Ramachandran, an internationally known physician-scientist and clinical epidemiologist, previously served on the faculty of the Boston University School of Medicine and School of Public Health for more than a quarter century. Earlier in his career, Ramachandran led and directed the first school of public health in India, where he enrolled and coordinated the first two cohorts of Master of Public Health students, oversaw recruitment of the core faculty and staff, supervised curriculum development and arranged for collaborations with prominent U.S. universities such as Johns Hopkins, Harvard, UC Berkeley and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Ramachandran recently received a UT System Faculty Science and Technology Acquisition and Retention (STARs) award of more than $1.6 million to fund infrastructure and renovation to advance public health in South Texas. Starting this new school comes at a critical juncture in the history of the country, the state and the region, he said. Much of the front-line battle of the COVID-19 pandemic has been fought by public health workers at a time when there has been a gap in infrastructure related to the training of the public health workforce, Ramachandran said.
“This crisis has exposed how challenging it is to deal with major public health challenges on the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.
Ramachandran believes the pandemic also revealed “a social patterning of disease.” Demographic characteristics of people who have been worst hit are front-line workers, people of color, people who lack health insurance, mothers of young children and other vulnerable populations, he noted.
“Launching the new School of Public Health in San Antonio is a transformative opportunity of a lifetime,” he said.
A partnership for the public good
Until now, San Antonio remained the largest city in the nation without an independent school of public health to focus efforts on the broad health concerns of the region. This strategic collaboration between UT Health San Antonio and The University of Texas at San Antonio will accelerate efforts to improve health outcomes and build a workforce equipped for that mission.
“The new joint school of public health will be a tremendous resource for San Antonio and South Texas,” said UT System Chancellor James B. Milliken.
Establishment of the school “introduces a new era for UT Health San Antonio’s and UTSA’s shared mission to serve the public good in close partnership with the City of San Antonio, Bexar County, our R&D partners and the health care community,” said UT Health San Antonio President William L. Henrich, MD, MACP.
UTSA President Taylor Eighmy, PhD, said the new school “allows us to meet critical public health workforce needs and is a major boost to both institutions’ positive momentum and commitment to being a center of excellence in public health education, service and research.”
For Jennifer Sharpe Potter, PhD, vice president for research at UT Health San Antonio, “This collaborative school of public health reflects our deep commitment to innovative programs and solutions to improving health and reducing the burden of disease in South Texas.”