Even as Georgia Health Sciences University launched a new public health institute Tuesday, national and local leaders called for action to address a host of ills besetting Augusta, the state and the nation.
GHSU President Ricardo Azziz announced the creation of the Institute of Public and Preventive Health, which will be formed around 36 researchers whose work involves public health.
With $6.2 million of funding from the National Institutes of Health, it is already the second-highest funded public health institute or school in the state in NIH funding and has the highest productivity per researcher in securing NIH funding, Azziz said.
“This is one of the priority areas we are going to look at and that we are going to invest in,” he said.
Its creation comes as Georgia ranks low in many health outcomes. The state is 41st in teen birth rate and diabetes and second in childhood obesity. Some Georgia counties have a life expectancy below the Dominican Republic and other countries, Azziz said.
“We are in a Third World country,” he said. “We are a state in very poor health.”
The new institute will focus on research and innovation to address some of those public health issues, Azziz said.
One of the biggest public health measures, however, might be in danger, said Dr. Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association. The Affordable Care Act will extend insurance coverage to 32 million Americans and just providing health insurance coverage could save 44,000 lives annually, he said.
The U.S. Supreme Court, however, is expected to rule soon on the constitutionality of the act and could strike it down, Benjamin said.
If that happens, those in favor of a single-payer, government-run system will renew the call for universal coverage, Benjamin said.
“It definitely revives the single-payer debate,” he said.
In Augusta, serious public health problems, such as a high teen pregnancy rate and high rate of sexually transmitted disease among teenagers, need to be addressed, said Dr. Ketty Gonzalez, the director of the East Central Health District.
“Teen pregnancy is associated with a lot of risk-taking behaviors and poor outcomes” for both mother and child, she said. “They end up in poverty and that creates a whole slew of problems for society.”
There is also the need to address health disparities and environmental problems, including lack of access to healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables.
Gonzalez said the community must get involved and those in public health have to reach out to the community.
“They have to have some ownership in the solution,” she said.
One way is to partner with the churches, many of which have health ministries, to try to address problems like obesity, said the Rev. K.B. Martin, the pastor of Antioch Baptist Church.
For instance, there is a need to educate elderly people who are hanging on to medication that expired many years ago, he said.
“They pay so much for prescriptions they don’t want to throw them away,” Martin said. “If we could partner with the public health community, we could resolve a lot of that.”