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Alumnus Q & A: Adewale Troutman, MD, EMPH '92

The incoming President of the American Public Health Association talks about his plans and priorities

Adewale Troutman has devoted his career to the principles of social justice, human rights, and health equity. Born and raised in the South Bronx, NY, and trained as a family physician, he has long been focused on ways to eliminate inequities in the healthcare system. Dr. Troutman has held positions in clinical emergency medicine, hospital administration and in academia. He was dean of the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health, held special consultancies with the World Health Organization, and served as director of the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness, where he is credited with passing one of the strongest anti-smoking laws in the nation.

At the close of the APHA annual meeting in early November 2011, Dr. Troutman began his three-year term in the Office of the President: first as President-elect--which involves leading the Committee on Advocacy, among other responsibilities, followed by his Presidency from November 2012 to November 2013, and then a third year with duties as Past-President.

An enthusiastic Mailman alum, he took time to answer some questions:

What makes you most passionate about public health?
The issues of health equities and human rights—making the world a more equitable place—are passions of mine. I also feel strongly about providing optimal health for all citizens. For me, it’s all about social justice. This is where we should be as a discipline.

How will you bring your commitment to health equity to your new role as APHA president?
This is who I am and it goes wherever I go. It’s at the board table with me and at every location as I travel around the country visiting our APHA affiliates. In terms of my role as an academic, I am a strong believer in the need to modify the health curriculum to focus on the issue of health equity. I would like to see new students fired up about human rights as a discipline. You will note that I refer to health disparities as “health inequities” because I believe we have a system-wide, unethical and unjust healthcare system.

Do you think that health inequities are becoming a bigger issue in these hard economic times?
I absolutely believe that health inequities are becoming a larger issue today. There is no question that being without health insurance leads to illness: life expectancy drops and chronic diseases increase. We are seeing how the housing crisis and health access are intertwined. There are so many more disenfranchised Americans today.

What are your top priorities for APHA during your term of office?
I have several top priorities for APHA during my term in office. One of my goals is for APHA to be the leading national organization on health. I would like to see it expand its advocacy focus to be more active in the policy arena; for it to be an advocate for policy change.

I also want to see that we continue to be the best provider of services and meet the needs of all 400,000 workers currently in the field of public health, most of whom do not hold MPH or doctorate degrees.

It is also critical that APHA enhances its international partnerships with organizations such as WHO. Strengthening coalitions within the public health field and building up relationships with certain key constituencies are a must. These include ASTHO [Association of State and Territorial Health Officials] because local, state offices should work together) and ASPH [Association of Schools of Public Health].

What do you see as the biggest current obstacles to improving the health of Americans?
First, our country lacks an integrated, logically developed system that provides total access. Health for our nation as a whole is not at all where it should be considering the amount of money we contribute. I believe that universal coverage and access to a standard quality of care are essential.

How concerned are you about the current pressures on public health funding both for research and programs, and how might you use your new position to advocate for public health funding?
I am extremely concerned about public health funding. Those planning to run for office against the current administration have stated in no uncertain terms that their intention is to turn back the current law and the increased attention to prevention. I will continue to advocate on behalf of health equity, social justice, and human rights for all people. We must not lose sight of the need to be more focused on the social determinants of health and the equity of health for all the people.

You point to your educational background as a major factor in your life-long goal to eliminate racism and disparities. Could you talk more about your experiences at the Mailman School and how these tied into your commitment to human rights and social justice?
Gladly. If the Mailman School had not offered an Executive Program there is no way I could have completed my MPH at that point in my career, and there is no doubt that having that degree led me to this point, allowing me to be where I am. My time at Mailman afforded me the opportunity to develop some great relationships in addition to providing a wonderful formal education.

How does the public health profession of today differ from when you were embarking on your career?
The public health profession of today is a very different one from when I embarked on my career at the age of 29. There has been a significant increase in focus on the need for health equity and social determinants of health as major drivers of population health. All of these issues are extremely critical today: economics, the housing crisis, unemployment, social isolation, racial discrimination and its dramatic impact on the health of populations. We must continue to push for these social and economic determinants as health indicators. 

What words of advice would you give the 2012 Mailman School graduate?
Stay focused, think big and think globally. Think in terms of collaboration, community activism, advocacy, and never, ever give up.

November 29, 2011