Sara Abiola

Assistant Professor, Health Policy and Management

A lawyer and public health researcher with a focus on the empirical evaluation of health laws, Sara Abiola evaluates government interventions to improve population health. In her most recent project, Abiola developed a theoretical framework linking public health laws to health-related behaviors and outcomes, including measuring the effects of obesity-prevention laws on youth body mass index. Abiola has contributed to the New England Journal of Medicine, Health Affairs, American Journal of Public Health, and the Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics.

You are one of the Health Policy and Management faculty who holds both a PhD in health policy and a JD. Is that a natural combination?

I think the two work well together. I chose to teach in a school of public health instead of a law school because of the general will here to move the world forward in a positive direction. My research focuses on evaluating the relationship between creating laws and improving public health—both directly and indirectly.

Indirectly?

Yes. To take one example, with support from a grant from the Provost’s Office, I’ve been exploring the relationship between gun control laws and public health. While firearms legislation is generally designed to prevent or reduce access to guns and related violent crimes, I want to know if there might also be a spillover effect of sorts. If fewer firearms means people feel safer spending time in their communities, will we start to see increased physical activity or other positive health-related behaviors? This notion of spillover is something I’m still testing and trying to model. Another application is obesity policy. We are doing a 50-state analysis of laws that were designed to do everything from improve opportunities for physical activity and better nutrition to monitor and report BMI to parents in order to determine what really works to combat obesity.

So you’re performing similar analysis while looking at such disparate areas as gun control policy and obesity policy?

Exactly. But that’s the great thing about this department. We take a broad view of policy and faculty research interest is so broad, I can connect with colleagues working on similar substantive issues or using similar research methods. If someone is looking at food policy, we can connect and compare notes on new areas of legislation. Alternatively, a colleague may use the same type of survey data, so we can bounce ideas off of each other about outcome or explanatory variables and explore different analytical strategies and model specifications. I have colleagues who are very pro-government intervention to improve public health and support more public health dollars in the system, and some who are more critical of government intervention, so there is always a healthy policy debate.

Are students frustrated with the limitations of government regulation?

We have a tremendous range of students who bring different energy and different focus to the classroom. The policy students typically have already been exposed to issues they’re passionate about and want to continue that discussion in the classroom so their critical thinking and policy analysis skills can become more nuanced. When I read their work at the end of the semester, I see the transition. Their language is more pointed, more focused, and they’re equipped with a solid skillset that enables them to go out into the world and promote evidence-based health policies. Management students often have a background in leadership in healthcare and ask more specific questions like “how can I ensure that my hospital or organization is in compliance with newer regulations?” All of them are focused on positive change, whatever their background. They come in very excited, after having had some exposure in policy or management, and they ask, “How do I make this happen?” We flood them with research and facts and figures, and at the end of the day, they take it all in and still want to build something that works and really makes a difference.