Landrigan to Lead Global Public Health Initiative

Boston College hired Philip J. Landrigan as a full-time faculty member to lead the creation of the University’s Global Public Health Initiative, which will include a new major and minor and will be a cornerstone of the new Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society, according to a University press release.

Landrigan, BC ’63, has had a distinguished career in public health, and he comes to Chestnut Hill by way of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, where he served as chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine.

“I came to a point in my life, several years ago, where I had pretty much done everything that I wanted to at Mount Sinai,” Landrigan said. “In November 2014, [Vice Provost for Research and Academic Planning] Dr. [Tom] Chiles brought me to BC to be the speaker at the annual symposium, and we started talking about a public health program at Boston College.”

Landrigan began to reconnect with the University long before 2014. In the early 2000s, he set up a program with BC that brought students to New York for the summer to intern at Mount Sinai and other hospitals in the city.

“At Mount Sinai, since I was only 200 miles or so away from Boston, I began to think about ways of reconnecting with Boston College,” Landrigan said. “About 12 or 15 years ago, I reached out to [now retired pre-med program director] Dr. Robert Wolff, and I suggested to him that it might be interesting to set up a little summer internship pipeline program where BC students could come down and spend the summer in New York.”

Ten to 12 students made the trip to New York every summer to intern. The internship was not paid or funded in any way by BC or Mount Sinai, but the resources of the hospital were available to students for the summer.

Landrigan recalls being impressed with the pre-med students that BC sent each year. Every year he would host the summer cohort at his house for a barbecue.

“What really set [BC students] apart was there very strong sense of a social mission and their desire to make the world better, which is probably a selection factor,” Landrigan said. “It is clearly something at BC that was building these young men and women.”

As a result of the 2014 conversation that he had with Chiles, Landrigan began to come to campus for a few days every month during the 2017-2018 academic year to put in place a plan for what would become the Global Public Health Initiative (GPHI).

In July 2018, Landrigan arrived at BC as a full-time faculty member, primarily in charge of organizing the GPHI. The University currently offers three courses in public health through the Lynch School of Education, Connell School of Nursing, and the Graduate School of Social Work.

In the fall of 2019, BC will enter a new phase of the initiative, offering a six-course minor in global public health. To accommodate this new minor, the University will hire two new faculty members.

Currently, administrators project the fall of 2021—when the Schiller Institute is projected to be completed—as the arrival date for a full major in public health. At that point, GPHI will be fully functional, but Landrigan said he suspects additional elements will be added to the program after the major is rolled out. GPHI will serve as one aspect of BC’s $300 million investment in the sciences, which is focused on “societal issues in the area of energy, health and the environment,” according to the institute’s website.

In 2005, 13 universities offered undergraduate majors in public health, according to the National Institute of Health. In 2018, 114 schools offer a public health major that is accredited by the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health. Harvard is ranked as the best school in the world for social sciences and public health, according to U.S. News and World Report.

“Ten years ago, there were almost no undergraduate programs in public health in the country,” Landrigan said. “They have just caught on, and it’s been growing from year to year. We’re part of a rising wave.”

The public health major will have three parts: an educational aspect, a research element, and a service component. Students will take classes in the global public health major, while conducting research on environmental pollution and its effect on public health. Landrigan headed up a global commission that researched the effect of pollution on public health in October 2017.

“[The report on pollution and health] was a very big deal,” he said. “We released [the report] in October of 2017, and it got 3,000 media hits and 2 billion readers. I wanted to be able to continue this work because clearly pollution is a big problem—it’s unresolved.”

In addition to classes and research, students will also take public health-focused service trips. Landrigan recently completed a trip to Honduras, in conjunction with the Mission and Ministry division. Students got a firsthand look at the public health systems available in Honduras and what social and economic factors have an effect on health care in developing nations.

Public health is rapidly growing as a field of study and an industry due to multiple factors, according to Landrigan. The world population is rising exponentially, and the United States is aging rapidly, which is bringing the issue of public health to the forefront of pressing issues. Health care costs have skyrocketed, making the issue increasingly more complex.

“Traditionally, health care was fee for service, but that’s been getting outrageously expensive and is not sustainable,” Landrigan said. “The solution is accountable care organizations.”

An accountable care organization (ACO) is a hospital or health organization that assumes responsibility for the health of a population in exchange for subsidization from the government.

Landrigan said that an ACO has two choices for the way that it spends the money it receives from the government: It can respond when people get sick, which is a very expensive way to address public health, or it can spend money on programs that keep people out of the hospital. Studies have shown that these programs can keep people healthier and save the hospitals money in the long run.

“Due to the aging population and increasing emphasis on preventative care, the job market in public health is very strong and growing,” Landrigan said.

Featured Image Courtesy of Philip Landrigan

Correction (9/24/18, 9:15 p.m.): This article originally referred to the University Mission and Ministry division as a program. It has been updated to reflect that it is a division of Boston College. In addition, it misstated that only two million readers read the report on pollution and health. Two billion people read the report on pollution and health, and the article has been updated to reflect that.