Led by one of its strongest colleges and fueled by a century-old tradition of extending science-based solutions into places where the public can use them, OSU is dramatically stepping up its efforts to help solve the health care crisis by helping people stay healthy.
In a few months, OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences (CPHHS) is expected to attain accreditation as Oregon’s first nationally recognized college of public health. That’s important for much more than symbolic reasons, said Tammy Bray, dean of the college.
“Most simply put, it’s a seal of approval that we meet national standards,” said Bray, who also serves as executive dean of OSU’s Division of Health Sciences, which includes CPHHS, the College of Pharmacy and the College of Veterinary Medicine.
“Accreditation raises our reputation and our ability to attract accomplished students and world-class faculty and to obtain the resources to support the things we do that are most important — educate the next generation of globally-minded public health and human sciences professionals, conduct internationally recognized research and, finally, bring that knowledge to the partnership we have with the public to ensure their lifelong health and well-being.”
CPHHS alumnus Mike Bonetto understands the importance of that mission better than most people. A former hospital administrator, he serves as Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber’s top health policy advisor. A Republican, Bonetto is good enough at his job to have been recently named to become the Democratic governor’s chief of staff in January.
Bonetto deals daily with the frustrations of trying to corral out-of-control health care costs that threaten to break the bank in both government and private industry. As a hospital administrator he saw firsthand how a single indigent patient with little or no access to preventive care might make 30 or 50 expensive visits per year to his hospital’s emergency room.
But it was as a graduate student at Oregon State in the late 1990s and early 2000s that he saw dramatic evidence of how university research could lead to effective health care policy.
“OSU at the time was doing groundbreaking research on tobacco cessation,” he said. “We were providing substantial vouchers for pregnant moms to stop smoking.”
In one OSU study the program’s incentives motivated about 30 percent of pregnant smokers to stop, which was a huge (and incredibly cost-effective) win considering that keeping just one newborn from having to be in a neonatal intensive care unit because its mother had smoked during pregnancy could easily save $100,000 or more in medical bills.
That led Bonetto to turn to his local Bend legislator, Republican Bev Clarno, to help get the state to incorporate the OSU research into its health policies. Soon he was hooked on the challenge of getting politicians to implement smart, research-based health policies, and he took a job on Clarno’s staff in Salem. He continues to commute between there and Bend, where he and his wife Nancy Bonetto, an optometrist, live.
Bonetto earned a master’s in public health from OSU in 2001 and a doctorate in health policy in 2005. He said he continues to be motivated by the frustration and hope of knowing that so many potential solutions to the nation’s health problems — and ultimately to its health care funding crisis — are being discovered by researchers but not put to work where they can actually help people.
It’s an uphill battle, he said, because the economics of health in the U.S. place most of the financial incentives in the realm of treating sick people, rather than in trying to keep them healthy.
“The system is inefficient, and you’ve got a lot of business models that thrive on that inefficiency,” he said. “You get paid to do more tests, to do procedures, to fill more hospital beds. You’re not getting paid to improve someone’s health, to keep them from needing care.”
That’s why Bonetto is excited to see his university getting more assertive about the role it can play in coming up with healthy ideas and then getting them off campus and into the real world.
“That great research doesn’t help anyone if it’s just sitting on a shelf,” he said.
OSU’s most recent strategic plan and the campus-wide reorganization and refocusing that followed it were built on the premise that the university would gather itself around what are known as “the three healthies,” which are healthy people, healthy economy and healthy planet.
Bray said the CPHHS, especially with its expected national accreditation in public health, is perfectly situated to lead.
“Human health and wellness is who we are — and is an area of distinction for the university,” she said. “In recognizing that the future isn’t about health care but rather health, we feel well-positioned to improve the health and wellness of individuals, families and communities, lower health care costs and effect health system change. That’s because we focus on the 90 percent of factors that make us healthy — our biology, our environment, our lifestyle and behavior — rather than the 10 percent that is health care delivery or treatment.”
The college incorporates the Hallie E. Ford Center for Healthy Children and Families; the Moore Family Center for Whole Grain Foods, Nutrition and Preventive Health, and the Center for Healthy Aging Research. In January it will launch a new center dedicated to global health. Its majors range from athletic training to human development and family sciences to nutrition to health promotion to health management and policy.
With all the modern-day developments fueling OSU’s “health kick,” there’s an equally important factor that’s almost as old as the university. From its earliest designation as a land grant school, Oregon State has been charged with — as Bonetto put it so aptly — getting research-backed solutions off campus and out into communities where people can put them to work.
In an earlier era, when the nation was starved for lumber to build buildings, ships and airplanes, that meant delivering ways to get timber out of the woods, into the mills and out to the lumber yards as efficiently as possible. Similarly, in agriculture, the university continues to be a national leader not just in great agricultural science, but in a celebrated extension system that rapidly turns good ideas into better farming practices. More than ever, Bonetto said, it’s time for universities like Oregon State to make the same kind of impact in public health.
Bray noted that the college aims to take full advantage of OSU Extension, particularly programs in family and community health and 4-H.
“Engagement is at our core,” she said. “We have had an orange welcome mat in every county in Oregon for more than 100 years. To have such a direct, built-in link to communities is rare among colleges of public health and truly makes us distinct.”
Bray cited many examples of how her students, faculty and alumni are stepping up:
- Students complete internships and collaborations with public health and health care providers across the state, including Avamere, PacificSource and Cover Oregon. They also participate as undergraduates in the college’s research efforts.
- Just a sampling of the ongoing faculty and graduate research includes exploring the best ways to ensure children are successful in school; working with a $1.25 million Centers for Disease Control grant to explore Medicaid expansion in Oregon; investigating California’s mental health system; understanding the role of motor skills in children with autism; preventing injuries in older adults and developing an obesity prevention and healthy lifestyle program for teenagers, thanks to a $4.7 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant.
- Meanwhile, alumni are teaching overseas, preventing workplace injuries, working in suicide prevention in Alaska, preventing STDs with the Centers for Disease Control, helping communities eat healthier, working as first responders in keeping athletes healthy, preparing children for success, and serving in a number of roles in public health and the health care system.
And at least one of those alumni is working at the highest level of Oregon government, trying to craft effective health policy.
Editor’s note: Kathryn Stroppel, director of communications and alumni relations in the CPHHS, contributed to this story.
This story was original published in the Winter 2014 issue of the Oregon Stater.