OHSU Launches Global Health Center

02/23/11  Portland, Ore.

Effort will push awareness, research, education and advocacy

Creators of a new center at Oregon Health & Science University hope to help the university become a major player in addressing health disparities worldwide, including those spurred by globalization. 

The OHSU Global Health Center will facilitate the university's collaboration with the global health community to promote quality and equity in health care internationally. Through the center, OHSU will work with domestic and international communities to develop programs for students, faculty, staff and partners that promote global health awareness, research, education and advocacy.

OHSU President Joseph E. Robertson Jr., M.D., M.B.A., announced the center's formation at a recent meeting of the National Institutes of Health's Fogarty International Center Trauma Research Group on the university's Marquam Hill campus.

Peter Spencer, Ph.D., F.C.R.Path., professor of neurology, OHSU School of Medicine, and director of the OHSU Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology (CROET), will serve as interim director of the Global Health Center. The center will be housed in CROET space on the OHSU campus until a permanent facility can be identified.

Spencer, who has long studied the causes and solutions to neglected human diseases in developing countries, hopes to spawn a new generation of medical and research professionals certified in global health.

"We have a growing number of immigrants and refugee groups from countries around the world presenting new and, until recently, rare health conditions to our physicians," Spencer said. "The Global Health Center will equip our students with the knowledge they need to practice their art abroad to address these unique ailments, and it will build exchanges across cultures that promote understanding of human health and longevity."

Many medical professionals believe globalization, the controversial process in which policy and technological advancements of recent decades have triggered explosions in trade, investment and migration, has helped the spread of avian influenza, multi-drug resistant tuberculosis and other usually preventable or uncommon infectious diseases. Globalization has also meant a rise in industries exposing primarily poor communities across the globe to hazardous environmental chemicals.

These health inequities were recognized by an OHSU student group known as the Global Health Alliance, which formed to promote global health awareness, education and advocacy at the university, including facilitating opportunities for students to visit other countries to learn about health care in diverse cultures and settings. The alliance's work gave rise to the OHSU Global Health Center.

"An altruistic group of students virtually demanded, through their dedication to global health, that OHSU acknowledge the need for formally addressing health equity," recalled Cate Bishop, OHSU Global Health Center coordinator.

In early 2006, based on a Global Health Alliance proposal, former OHSU President Peter Kohler, M.D., and Provost Lesley Hallick, Ph.D., established a Global Health Initiative steering committee, made up of representatives of each of OHSU's four schools and several university units, to develop a proposal for the interdisciplinary center. That spring, the committee launched a survey of some 700 OHSU students, staff and faculty members that showed more than 31 faculty members, 36 staff members and 25 students were involved in global health research.

The survey also found that 80 percent of students who responded would register for global health elective courses, and 74 percent of students would like individual mentorship relationships with faculty members around global health issues. But only 16 percent of students said they knew of all the global health-related courses offered at OHSU.

Part of Bishop's job has been to identify who in the OHSU community has or is involved with active global health programs. She said it's been like "treasure hunting."

"The richness, depth and commitment of these passionate, dedicated people involved in global health never ceases to amaze and delight me," Bishop said. "The center plans to facilitate networking of these folks to provide synergy and assistance wherever possible."

The center will have a Web site up and running within the next several months, and global health courses are being developed to "embrace an all-encompassing global perspective on health, addressing issues as varied as environmental effects on health, cultural understanding, issues of nutrition, poverty, sanitation, disease, wellness and health equity," according to Bishop.

"Our mission is to facilitate OHSU collaboration with the global health community to promote quality and equity in health care worldwide," she said.

Spencer said OHSU's contributions to world health already are being demonstrated. He pointed to mental health programs for refugees and immigrants, emergency medicine education programs in Turkey, tropical medicine programs in India, tropical neurology programs in Africa, and tuberculosis eradication programs offered around the world.

"These independent global health initiatives have come together under a single umbrella through the vision and urging of students across all our schools, who in 2005 banded together in a global health alliance to raise the visibility of global health education, research, collaboration and advocacy at OHSU," he said.

OHSU joins a growing number of U.S. medical schools – the University of Washington and Vanderbilt University among them – that are embracing global health as essential to their research and education programs, said Aron Primack, M.D., health scientist administrator for the Division of International Training and Research at the NIH Fogarty International Center.

"We're gratified to see this growth across the country," said Primack. "The fact that (the OHSU Global Health Center) is a student-stimulated endeavor makes me feel that this will be a major and sustainable effort, and good for everybody."

The Fogarty International Center is the international component of the NIH that addresses global health challenges through innovative and collaborative research and training programs, and supports and advances the NIH mission through international partnerships, according to its Web site.

Over time, such overseas programs help U.S. health professionals better treat their own citizens, Primack said.

"Most of the increase in the U.S. population in recent decades has really been by immigration, not by birth," he said. "We're now at 300 million people. And these are people who need health care. Where are we going to learn to treat them in a culturally sensitive way?"

Ramona Hicks, Ph.D., program director at the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, praised OHSU's effort to make global health a part of its educational and research missions.

"The ability to learn and inform across countries seems like a great opportunity and one that our institute is highly supportive of," she said.

She said she hopes medical professionals trained through OHSU's Global Health Center take on traumatic brain injury as an area of focus in the coming years.

"Traumatic brain injury is a major medical problem across the United States, but also globally," she said. "Certainly something that's in front of us right now is injured U.S. soldiers. That is driving a lot of research, and it has implications for both military and civilian populations. International and global perspectives in this area can help advance research."