New Yale Public Health Dean Dr. Megan Ranney on gun violence, diversity and the transformation of population health

Is it possible to be focused on an individual's health as an emergency department physician while also being passionate about population health? The answer is unequivocally yes, according to Megan Ranney, MD, newly appointed dean of the Yale School of Public Health in New Haven, Conn.

In fact, Dr. Ranney's federally funded research — from sources that include the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the American Public Health Association — focuses on developing and disseminating digital solutions she hopes will solve existing and emerging healthcare challenges.

Although  she said she is deeply concerned about every patient she sees, she believes the future of medical breakthroughs requires researchers who are willing to embrace the micro and macro views of healthcare. 

Dr. Ranney will take on her new role July 1 after 20 years at Providence, R.I.-based Brown University, where she is the deputy dean at its School of Public Health. "I love Brown. It took something special to get me to be willing to leave Brown,"  Dr. Ranney told Becker's. "Yale School of Public Health, at this moment in time, is something really special."

She is the Warren Alpert Endowed Professor of Emergency Medicine at Alpert Medical School of Brown University as well as the founding director of the Brown-Lifespan Center for Digital Health. 

Dr. Ranney is outspoken about many issues, including the effects of gun violence. She co-founded the American Foundation for Firearm Injury Reduction in Medicine at the Aspen Institute and serves as its senior strategic adviser. 

The opioid abuse epidemic is at the top of her priority list as well, and Dr. Ranney serves on the National Opioid Abatement Trust II's board of trustees. 

Dr. Ranney pivots as issues arise. When she saw firsthand the lack of personal protective equipment for hospital clinicians early in the COVID-19 pandemic, she co-founded, a nonprofit group that aimed to deliver donated PPE where it was most needed.  

She also said today's medical minds have the ability to move proverbial healthcare mountains if they can harness the power of diversity. 

"If we're truly thinking about changing and empowering populations to achieve improvements in physical, emotional and social health, we have to take into account that people from various communities want the same things, but they communicate differently."

Editor's note: Responses were lightly edited for clarity and length.

Question: You mentioned you are looking forward to working with the Yale community to "define a transformative vision of what public health education, scholarship, and practice can be in the 21st century" What does that vision look like to you?

Dr. Megan Ranney: At the core of what I hope will be a co-created vision, is a school in which the community at large, not just the local area, but also national and even global scientific leaders, sees themselves as a partner in the important work we do. 

Q: You work with diverse groups to promote population level health. Why is this of particular interest to you?  

MR: I care a lot about individual level health. I'm a practicing emergency physician. A lot of my own research looks at individual-level behavior change. But in public health, we think about health outcomes by starting with the individual and then going to the family, the neighborhood or the community and then out to society. We need to think about how health is influenced across all of those levels. 

Taking a purely individual focus, as we've seen during COVID, as we see around firearm injury, as we see for opioids, is insufficient. 

Q. Can you describe a more productive approach to managing these serious challenges?

MR: Let's not forget about the importance of emphasizing the diversity of the communities we serve. When I think about diversity, I think about gender, race and ethnicity as well as socioeconomic status, disability status, geography — because rural populations and urban populations are going to have different concerns. They have different forms of communication, different things that motivate them and they are all concerned with different issues.

There are some issues that are universal, but how they are implemented in various communities is going to be a little different. So, for example, measles vaccines are a universal public health intervention. No matter where you go on the globe, we feel strongly about recommending MMR vaccines because we know they reduce childhood illness and death. But how MMR vaccination campaigns are implemented around the world aren't universal, there are going to be some things which are very community specific. 

So my vision of public health is that it is that dance between individuals in the population but we also must measure outcomes on the aggregate level. My hope is that, by working together, we create a world in which entire communities are healthier.

Q. Looking toward your new role as dean of the Yale School of Public Health, what are you most excited about doing?

MR: It is the chance to lead the Yale School of Public Health at an inflection point, both for the school, which became independent and autonomous (in February 2022) for the first time in its 100-plus year history, and also at an inflection point for public health in the country and across the world.

Over the last three years, the world has gotten used to the idea of public health. In the past, when I told people I was a public health researcher, I had to explain what that meant. Now, nobody questions it because we've all experienced it over the past few years. 

So getting to work at this school, with its unbelievable history, at this historic, societal moment in time, is both a privilege and an immense responsibility. I look forward to working with the great community at Yale, and in New Haven, to define a vision together that will hopefully impact the way that people think about and practice public health for generations to come. 

Q: What's at the top of your priority list when you begin your new position? 

MR: My number one priority is meeting the community both internal and external to the Yale School of Public Health. I have spent enough time in leadership to know that nothing is possible if you don't both understand the history and have the trust of people that you're working with. So I would be foolish to come and outline a whole bunch of change initiatives that are not based in the  reality of the folks, the faculty, the staff, the students at Yale School of Public Health and the larger New Haven community.

Q: You have been outspoken on the topic of gun violence. Why are you so passionate about this topic?

MR: As an emergency physician, I have seen firsthand the effects of a bullet on the human body, on the human psyche and on the community that surrounds a person who is shot. There are not a lot of things in the United States that have that sort of deep ripple effect on so much of the country in the way that gun violence does. 

The second reason that I care deeply about gun violence it is because I know that it is eminently preventable. I did my fellowship and my research training in the field of injury prevention from violence. Firearm injury is no different and it is absolutely preventable. We see over and over throughout history that when we use a public health approach, we can change patterns of injury and reduce the risk of harm. 

The third reason why I'm so passionate about it is because we have absolutely failed to apply that model to this problem. As a result, we are seeing it in communities across the United States, particularly communities that were already structurally disadvantaged because of racism and socioeconomics. I just find that unconscionable. 

This is a population-level issue and I feel it is imperative to work on preventing violence so we can create hope and to create change. It's the way some people feel about climate change.

One of the things that is amazing about public health, in general, is that we have basic methodological approaches that can be applied across epidemics or pandemics. In fact, much of what we try to teach to our students is, "Yes, you should understand topical issues, but you should have these core skill sets that you can apply to whatever the next emerging public health problem is." 

Q: Do you worry about what that next thing is going to be?

MR: I don't think there is a reason to panic about what may come next. But as an emergency physician and a public health professional — and as a former Girl Scout — we need to be prepared. That's the work of public health: thinking now so we have the resources and the infrastructure in place to handle whatever comes next. We know there will be something, but wouldn't it be great to be able to maximize health outcomes without disrupting society?

Today, it's opioids, firearm injury and COVID. Who knows what the new infectious disease pathogen is going to be tomorrow? Tomorrow, it's going to be maybe something else that we haven't thought of yet. The key point of public health is that we do have these techniques and strategies that work when applied well. We've proven over centuries the methods work.

The trouble is, we often don't use them well. Why? Either we have insufficient data or insufficient funding and often both. We can't be successful unless we invite the various communities to the table to be partners in solving our problems. 

Q: You are incredibly prolific when it comes to participating in scientific studies. What's the focus of your next project? 

MR: The Yale School of Public Health is a great place. My next project is going to be working with the people at the school and with Yale University to grow the Yale School of Public Health into the most impactful and influential public health school in the country. I want this school to be transformative — to transform the health of communities across the globe.

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