Dr. Ana Diez Roux: a champion of population health
Health is one of the most critical parts of life, because without health it is very difficult to function effectively in the many components of daily life.
While there are various elements leading to a healthy and sustainable life, there are also many factors that play a role – both negatively and positively – in a person’s health.
Throughout her professional career, Dr. Ana Diez Roux has been a key leader in public health, studying and addressing social determinants and the effects of neighborhoods on health.
Given the number of roles and titles she currently occupies — Dana and David Dornsife Dean and Emeritus Professor of Epidemiology at the Dornsife School of Public Health at Drexel University, and director of the Drexel Urban Health Collaborative among them – Dr Diez Roux is able to be very involved, becoming a strong and influential voice on the issue.
“Much of my interest in public health has focused on how social, economic and environmental factors affect health and generate health inequalities between groups of people,” Dr Diez Roux said in an interview. with AL DÍA.
Her interest started quite early in her professional training and grew as did her desire to make a bigger impact for herself and her community. Since realizing this interest, she has spent most of her career working on these same factors.
A well-traveled childhood
Throughout her youth, Dr. Diez Roux spent part of her life in three different countries.
Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, his father, who worked at a university, first moved his family to Venezuela due to his job and a complicated political situation in Argentina.
At the age of seven, the family moved to the United States, where Dr. Diez Roux lived in Lexington, Massachusetts for five years.
Then, at the age of 12, she and her family returned to the Argentinian capital where she received her high school and university education.
Spending a handful of her years in Argentina and the United States made her feel deeply connected to both nations, as she was often, as she described it, “between countries.”
While in Argentina, Dr Diez Roux studied medicine and received his training as a pediatrician in one of only two pediatric hospitals in Buenos Aires.
In addition to working in the hospital, she and the other pediatricians worked on rotation in health centers, often located in the poorest and economically disadvantaged areas of the city.
This experience prompted her to take a particular interest in public health, as the reality and the impact it could potentially have became clearer.
“I realized there was so much that doctors couldn’t really address in the lives of people that have to do with their health,” she said.
As a pediatrician, she was able to treat certain illnesses, often temporarily, but not directly to the root causes of these health problems.
After this realization, Dr. Diez Roux turned to public health, which led to her eventual return to the United States to pursue graduate studies in the field.
Pursue the path of public health
With his decision made, Dr Diez Roux began applying to graduate schools of public health in the United States.
She obtained a scholarship and enrolled at the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, to pursue graduate studies in public health.
The reality of moving between countries and continents at a young age proved to be very beneficial as she sought out higher education opportunities.
“As I spent much of my childhood in the United States, I could speak English very well and when it came time to think about where I could train in public health, it was easy for me. to think about coming back to the United States for graduate studies because there were a lot of opportunities here, ”said Dr Diez Roux.
Along with a group of medical residents, they often held meetings and invited sociologists, anthropologists, community leaders, and association representatives to discuss the health issues facing their communities.
“In this context, I became more aware that there was so much more we could do and that I needed to take training in public health,” she added.
While studying at Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Diez Roux also developed an interest in public health research, accentuating her later decision to pursue a doctorate at the university as well.
It was at this time that she became interested in the field of epidemiology; the study and analysis of the distribution, patterns and determinants of health and disease conditions in defined populations.
“I was very interested in understanding how social and economic things affect health,” said Dr Diez Roux.
“Epidemiology is therefore a perfect tool for that, because you can study the differences in health between different population groups and… what we can do to [create] change, ”she added.
Social determinants of population health
Part of his work in public health involves examining how neighborhoods affect people’s health, developing mechanisms on how to change neighborhood health environments and outcomes, and collecting and analyzing data. to understand the patterns of evidence within these neighborhoods.
“It’s very interdisciplinary,” said Dr. Diez Roux of her work. “It integrates elements of sociology, psychology, medicine, biology… to understand what are the main drivers of health. “
Throughout her career, she has been able to work and learn from teams of people from diverse backgrounds, which she says has made “a huge difference in the work we have been able to do.”
One of the goals of his work has been to understand how race and ethnicity play a role in the impact on the health of the population. Themes of race and ethnicity then extend to other factors, such as residential segregation, social class, economic status, acculturation and more, all critical determinants of health.
The work is done through both a physical and societal environmental lens, and aims to unbox the systemic structures that pave the way for these realities impacting health and, in turn, create these disparities.
“When we think of improving health, we have to think not only of health care… but also of the environments in which people live,” said Dr Diez Roux.
Lots of different hats
After working in the faculties of Columbia University and the University of Michigan, where she was Chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Director of the Center for Social Epidemiology and Population Health, Dr. Diez Roux joined the staff of the Drexel University in 2014.
She is currently Dean and Emeritus Professor of Epidemiology at the university’s Dornsife School of Public Health.
As Dean, her goal is to provide students with the tools and skills to think critically about health and the factors most important to health based on scientific evidence.
“Because the foundation of public health is science,” she said.
She also wants these students to be able to partner with communities, nonprofits and stakeholders to work effectively as a team and become key advocates and voices for public health and society.
“Much of public health relates to the way society is organized,” said Dr Diez Roux, noting the broader public societal discussions regarding the economy, social policy and issues such as climate change. , inequalities and racism and seeing how these factors relate to health.
Dr Diez Roux is also director of the Drexel Urban Health Collaborative, where she is able to expand this work globally.
In this role, she was able to focus on health in the most urbanized cities in the United States, Latin America and beyond, and generate a broader understanding of the factors that play a role in public health in these regions. , and develop ways to reduce the inequalities and challenges these communities face.
This has also led to her role as principal investigator of the SALURBAL (Salud Urbana en América Latina) study, which focuses on factors affecting residents across Latin America.
Whether it’s transportation issues, air quality, segregation, or access to healthy food, these are common challenges that people around the world face. As a result, the Drexel Urban Health Collaborative has been able to analyze these challenges in these areas and find ways to address them.
“It’s really important to think about how we can design, manage and govern cities so that they can promote health and also protect the environment,” said Dr Diez Roux.
A healthy legacy of global impact
The pandemic has raised many challenges. A silver lining, however, is that it has helped shed light on the underlying health inequalities that have prevailed for decades, bringing epidemiology to the fore.
“COVID, by highlighting these things, has given us the opportunity to speak more forcefully about the health implications of systemic factors like racism and economic inequality,” said Dr. Diez Roux.
Work continued throughout the pandemic.
When asked what she believed to be the most rewarding part of her job, Dr Diez Roux said it was an opportunity to work with young people and “see them bring new ideas forward, new ways of thinking about the world and what we can do. do to make it healthier.
Having the opportunity to see the young generation of diverse backgrounds come together and work in unison to achieve a common goal adds more meaning to his work.
On a more personal level, if there is one end goal to the decades of work she has devoted to the cause of population health, it is this, and also to have a profound positive impact. for individuals and communities.
“I hope I have helped create environments where everyone can develop and flourish and where people from different backgrounds can come together, find common ground and work together on a common mission,” she said. .