By Gabrielle Maxey
“Health innovations propelled by dreams – a win-win-win scenario for the University of Memphis, our region and students.”
– Dr. Wilfried Karmaus, professor and director of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and
Reducing the risk of diabetes in local Latino families. Studying the levels of toxins
in our air. Developing tools to prevent childhood obesity. Researching sickle cell
disease in Shelby County. Improving training for food safety inspectors.
These are just a few of the significant issues the University of Memphis School of
Public Health has been tackling since it was established in 2007.
Public health is the science and art of improving the health of communities through
education, promotion of healthy lifestyles and research for disease and injury prevention.
The goal is to prevent health problems before they occur.
Of the 95 counties in Tennessee, Shelby County ranks 66th in health factors, including
clinical care, health risk behavior, social and economic factors and physical environment.
The county ranks 59th overall in health outcomes and 61st in premature death.
A Healthy Start
In the early 1980s, a group of Tennesseans saw a need for more public health care
workers. The number of public health workers in America was declining, and between
1980 and 2000 would fall 21 percent. Worse, estimates indicated that this country
would have a shortage of 25,000 public health workers by 2020.
Faced with both workforce shortages and local health needs, the Tennessee Board of
Regents approved a Master of Public Health degree program in July 2006. By the next
year, a Master of Public Health director was hired and the first students enrolled.
A School of Public Health director was hired a year later.
The School of Public Health works to improve the health of communities throughout
the Midsouth region.
The SPH is committed to providing excellence in education, research and outreach to
enhance public health and promote health equity. Among the numerous outreach programs
of the School are:
Improving Care for Patients with HIV/AIDS
In collaboration with Shelby County Health Department Epidemiology Section, the Memphis TGA
Ryan White Part A Program and the School of Public Health, a total of 286 survey interviews
and four focus groups were conducted with participants in the Ryan White Program,
which provides services to patients with HIV/AIDS who need care but can’t afford it.
Patients were asked to assess overall barriers and facilitators to accessing care,
including the role of social support from family, friends, and church members, HIV-related
stigma, HIV disclosure, and incarceration. Successes span from inclusion of out-of-care
assessments to measures evaluating retention.
Consumer survey results reported that almost half of respondents said they “sometimes/often”
thought other people were uncomfortable being with them. “The importance of this research
is to improve medical and supportive services, and linkage and retention in care,”
said Dr. Latrice Pichon, assistant professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
Air Quality Monitoring
The School of Public Health is a major collaborator with the Shelby County Health
Department in a $574,404 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
to implement the Air Pollution Special Studies Grant Program. The study, titled “Reducing
Exposure to Airborne Chemical Toxics (REACT) via Community-Scale Air Monitoring in
Memphis,” will monitor more than 60 air toxics in ambient air in the Memphis area
to understand their sources, exposure levels, and health risks. It will rely on a
major collaboration between the U of M and Middle Tennessee State University. Dr.
Chunrong Jia, assistant professor of Environmental Health, serves as the principal
investigator of the U of M.
This three-year study will provide data that can examine and compare health risk and
air quality across different communities throughout Shelby County. The project will
collect air toxics samples in almost half of the census tracts in Shelby County, and
measure ambient concentrations of more than 50 air toxics. It will identify possible
areas of high concentrations and major contributors of air toxic pollutants and evaluate
the health risks from exposure to air toxics in Memphis. This research will provide
a better understanding of the type and origin of VOCs as ozone precursors.
Overall, the study is designed to provide scientific data for EPA to conduct risk
assessment and to control air toxics emissions. “The results will provide bases for
future control of air toxics emissions, and ideally, to achieve clean air in Memphis,”
The new division of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Environmental Health (EBE) offers
a unique setting to collaborate in research, enhance teaching, and to provide service
to the community. The research has local, national and international components, and
addresses a variety of health outcomes and environmental exposures. With a better
understanding of specific diseases, medical personnel will be able to improve preventive
and patient services.
Drs. Hongmei Zhang and Wilfried Karmaus are working on a grant funded by NIH, whose
aim is to improve the classification of allergic diseases by developing joint cluster
approaches for clinical markers and patients. Once developed for allergic diseases,
the approach can be applied to other clinical markers (for instance, metabolic syndrome
or cardiovascular diseases). “The aim is to prevent asthma, eczema, and allergies
by understanding early life risk factors,” said Karmaus. He also is working with colleagues
form the Ukrainian Academy of Science in Kiev to study the health effects of the Chernobyl
nuclear accident in 1986.
Partnering with researchers and physicians at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare and
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Drs. Vikki Nolan and James Gurney are studying
sickle cell disease and health care utilization patterns in the Memphis area.
Dr. Pratik Banerjee, assistant professor of Environmental Health, is principal investigator
of a multi-institutional collaborative grant funded by the Food and Drug Administration
and the Department of Health and Human Services to provide standardized, effective
training for food safety inspectors and stakeholders at all levels.
The School Today: Growing and Thriving
The administration continues to develop specific goals and objectives. In addition
to completing a comprehensive strategic plan for the School of Public Health, the
administration plans to achieve accreditation from the Council on Education for Public
Health (CEPH), grow and improve the School’s graduate programs and research portfolio,
increase its number of strategic partnerships in the community and grow development
Some of these milestones are already accomplished or are very close to being accomplished.
The School has completed its self-study evaluation and strategic planning, and is
working to assemble a full complement of core faculty. It’s deepened its public health
research programs and is working to obtain approval of its third PhD program. This
year has also seen the School advance several doctoral students to candidacy.
Perhaps most importantly, the School is well on its way toward accreditation. It applied
for accreditation candidacy in August 2012 and was accepted by CEPH in October. The
School now has two full years to conduct an accreditation self-study and undergo a
site visit by CEPH. The School hopes to schedule the site visit for spring or fall