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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: Researchers will bolster public health commitment

With the hiring of a public health research team, Washington State University has greatly reinforced its medical care mission in Eastern Washington. Welcome as a four-year medical school – or two – will be, the fight against disease begins with a robust public health effort.

What could be more fundamental than understanding the forces that contribute to poor health, and the individual and institutional changes that might prevent or reverse the damage?

The team joining WSU is one of the best. All are now affiliated with the University of Washington Partnerships for Native Health Program, a relationship that will not be severed. UW’s public health program is ranked sixth in the nation.

The team leader, Dr. Dedra Buchwald, will be inducted into the Washington State Academy of Sciences this fall. Her associates are specialists in epidemiology, biostatistics, psychology and exercise physiology.

They are looking east as they expand the focus of their work to include Latinos and other underserved populations. Among these, some are afflicted with some of the same maladies, caused by the same factors, as Native Americans: obesity and related diseases, smoking, and lack of access to medical care and quality education.

Poverty is a common link, as a 2012 study by the Spokane Regional Health District made clear. Life expectancy varies by as many as 18 years just in Spokane County, with the spread largely due to income differences.

Okanogan, Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties and their low-income residents are among the least healthy in Washington, according to Department of Health statistics.

Although no immediate plans exist to convert the research effort into a WSU doctoral program, the effort will nonetheless extend the continuum of public health study that begins with undergraduate study at Gonzaga University and progresses to a master’s degree at Eastern Washington University.

The head of the EWU master’s program, Frank Houghton, says the school already is exploring possible avenues of collaboration. Often, he notes, personal health depends on factors as simple as having transportation to a hospital or individual provider.

At the regional health district, health officer Dr. Joel McCullough says the UW researchers will have access to resources not now available in Eastern Washington. And because of their work with the Native American population, the team will already know the region.

Not much attention is paid public health until outbreaks of diseases like measles remind us that good medicine starts before a patient walks into an emergency room. Less than 5 percent of health care expenditures in the United States are dedicated to public health, in part because the federal government picks up only a small share of the bill compared with its other health care spending.

That has to change. Spending those dollars wisely, however, depends on research that identifies the causes of disease and the environment and behavior that contributes to their prevalence, and how best to eliminate or minimize those risk factors.

Those answers should come sooner when the new WSU team is in the fields east of the Cascades.