New Department of Population Health Sciences a ‘natural consolidation’

Dr. Greg Harshfield (left) and Dr. Varghese George will lead the new Department of Population Health Sciences at Augusta University. The department will emphasize epidemiology studies.

A new department at Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University will foster more collaboration not only on campus but with community leaders and other schools and agencies across the state, officials said.

 

The new Department of Population Health Sciences will begin Saturday and is being formed by combining the Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology and the Georgia Prevention Institute.

“It’s a natural consolidation,” said Dr. Varghese George, who will be the chair of the new department. “We have so much in common actually.”

While it is new, “we’ve been working on it for a long time” and the two departments collaborated often before this, said Dr. Gregory Harshfield, who will serve as vice chair.

There was some initial debate about what even to call the new department, whether it would be Public Health or Population Health and they chose Population Health because “we thought that captured the essence of what we wanted to do,” said MCG Dean David Hess, who championed its creation. “You have to eventually address the issue of why Georgia ranks 40 and below in so many health measures” in state health rankings.

Public health tends to focus on trying to change people’s behavior while population health is “looking at health outcomes and how that is distributed among different populations,” George said. For instance, the differences between blacks and whites in certain areas or between suburban and urban populations, he said.

“Especially in Georgia, that is a critical issue,” George said. “Rural health and health disparities in the rural areas is really a major concern for Georgia’s public health.”

With campuses in Albany, Savannah and Brunswick, MCG can draw on local expertise and observation to look at why particularly south Georgia has much worse health outcomes, Hess said. But the new department also allows greater local interaction, George said.

“We want to have very strong ties and collaborations with the community leaders within Augusta and the CSRA,” he said.

Hess has already talked with the University of Georgia College of Public Health and about a dozen or so faculty will be coming down to Augusta in September to talk about potential collaborations. The new departments is also looking to strengthen ties with state agencies and in particular with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, George said.

“This is the opportunity for us to allow these people to go out and create partnerships within the context of this department that we weren’t able to do before,” Harshfield said.

It will allow a greater emphasis on epidemiology than was possible before, George said.

“It’s actually almost an embarrassment that the flagship health sciences campus of the University System of Georgia does not have a strong epidemiology presence,” he said.

And it will allow a new emphasis on health policy research that the school really hasn’t had before but needed, Hess said.

“When we’re called and asked for an expert, that is always hard for us,” he said. “We don’t have people that are experts in that so that is an area we’d like to develop.”

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tom.corwin@augustachronicle.com.

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