June 2, 2011

Growth, change for Preventive Medicine mission

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William Schaffner, M.D., has chaired Vanderbilt’s Department of Preventive Medicine since 1982. (Photo by Steve Green)

Growth, change for Preventive Medicine mission

After a storied history of achievement in the areas of teaching, research and advocacy in the fields of prevention and public health, Vanderbilt's Department of Preventive Medicine is expanding and will be re-named.

The new department to emerge will be a multi-disciplinary base for health policy research and design. The current department's strengths in population-based epidemiology and prevention will blend seamlessly with cross-campus disciplines critically important to health policy debate such as economics, law and business. The mission of the new department is to provide rigorous evidence and help drive public health decisions at the very highest level.

William Schaffner, M.D., professor and chair of Preventive Medicine since 1982, is credited with bringing the 86-year-old department from its roots in the prevention of infectious diseases to its current acclaim as a center for epidemiologic research and a generator of quality, policy-influencing public health information. The department has helped afford Vanderbilt a seat at the table during the current period of debate about national health care.

“I remain absolutely steadfast in thinking that good data presented coherently, persuasively and persistently will have an impact. But today it's not just laboratory-based research or even population-based science, it's also economics, law, sociology, examination of medical care delivery systems, issues of human behavior, and how people respond in seeking medical care,” Schaffner said.

Schaffner engineered what is arguably one of the strongest relationships in the nation between a medical school and its state department of health. The firm bond between Vanderbilt and the Tennessee Department of Health has allowed Preventive Medicine researchers, including Wayne Ray, M.S., Ph.D., and Marie Griffin, M.D., MPH, to work closely with state health officials, mining public records for some of the largest studies involving patient safety and pharmacoepidemiology, research that often influences public health policy.

“Dr. Schaffner is by any measure one of our most distinguished faculty,” said Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., vice chancellor for Health Affairs and dean of the School of Medicine. “He has received accolades from nearly every organization within his discipline. His steady leadership of the Department of Preventive Medicine, and close ties with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has helped firmly establish Vanderbilt's position as a national leader in public health and disease prevention.

“His enthusiasm for the growth and change his department is about to undergo is further indication of his forward-thinking approach toward impacting public health,” Balser said.

Schaffner declined the opportunity to chair the department in its next phase, saying instead this is the perfect transitional opportunity to pass the baton to a new leader who will bring the department through this period of growth and transition. And while he will be stepping down as chair, his ongoing collaborations with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and leadership roles in other high-profile national organizations will continue to be instrumental in the success of the new department.

“In part, thanks to the decades of work by highly-effective public health educators like Bill Schaffner, people are knowledgeable enough today that they are involved consumers of health care and also more skeptical,” said Robert Dittus, M.D., MPH, associate vice chancellor for Public Health and Health Care and senior associate dean for Population Health Sciences. “What is needed now is not rhetoric, but evidence. We must continue to support education with hard evidence. This newly expanded department will tackle problems that society sees as front and center to the survival of our society.”

Dittus said John Graves, currently a Ph.D. candidate in Health Policy at Harvard University, is the first person hired to expand the scope of the yet-to-be-named department. Graves, who utilizes dynamic program evaluation using micro simulation and event history modeling to look at health care economics, was extensively involved in budgetary modeling of the recent health care reform legislation. He will arrive this summer.

“With bright people like Dr. Graves, we want to be out front with research and simulations and recommending proactively. Because of our infrastructure, we are well positioned for health policy research and economists can help form the evidence into policy,” Dittus said.

As the fifth chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine, Schaffner was the first to bring Vanderbilt firmly into expanding population-based scientific traditions and disciplines by instituting a Master of Public Health program.

Schaffner, who is a popular commentator on national news programs, has encouraged many in the medical profession, and not just at Vanderbilt, to become active participants in the public conversation about health care through use of the news media.

“We have been small and great and I anticipate we will be larger and greater,” Schaffner said.

Dittus said a Ph.D. program in Health Policy is already in the plans for the future within the new department. A national search will begin soon for department leadership.