Sep. 12 2014

Few people understand New York City and its perpetual need for creative concepts to improve health better than Dr. Mary Bassett, MD, MPH, the city’s Commissioner in the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Appointed under Mayor Bill de Blasio, Bassett, an alumna of Physicians and Surgeons and faculty member at the Mailman School’s Epidemiology department, recently returned to her old stomping grounds to hear new ideas.

DrBassett-280x328.jpegThe visit was the culmination of a contest convened by Dean Linda P. Fried that challenged faculty, students, and staff to submit proposals on how to make New York City the healthiest city in 2015.

It was also an opportunity to reflect on the deep ties between the School and the Department. "We celebrated Dr. Bassett’s appointment for many reasons," said Dean Fried at the September 8 occasion. "Her work resonates with all of us, and reflects the strong interactions and synergies between academia and practice."

In fact, when the School was founded in 1938, it originally shared a building with the Department of Health. That symbiosis continues today, as many throughout the School strive to improve the health of the cities’ varied populations.

More than 40 applications were received for the contest with four finalists and one winner selected to present their ideas to Commissioner Bassett, Dean Fried, and Sally Findley, Professor of Population and Family Health, who thought up the competition.

Two presentations centered on priorities of the de Blasio administration—early childhood education and egalitarianism.

Helena Duch pitched the use of pediatric primary care as platform for promoting school readiness. As a "fantastic complement to what is already existing," the print and digital communications vehicles developed with colleagues in Population and Family Health would promote cognitive, social, and emotional skills for young children.

Operating under the belief that reducing disparities "isn’t just the right thing, but the healthy thing," Elaine Meyer, associate director of communications in Epidemiology, and teammates from the department’s 2X2 project recommended a multifaceted look at the policies and conditions that result in social inequalities. By tracking the right metrics, such an approach could underline health as a key urban priority.

A third proposal pushed for expanding the Bloomberg-era Citibike program. Citing an "opportunity at the intersection of public health and transportation," Tanya Kaufman (MPH ’13), a former research analyst in Epidemiology, made the case that putting affordable bike sharing docks in Upper Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx would have broad health benefits.

Two final proposals used cell phones as a jumping-off point.

An interdisciplinary group of students from the School of International & Public Affairs and the Mailman School made a case for providing cell phones to homeless youth. Based on a similar federal model called "Lifeline," such connectivity would "provide a safety net with cascading outcomes" in health, education, employment, and housing.

Tanya Ellman presented an idea co-developed with her ICAP colleague Jessica Justman that would develop a smart phone app designed to connect black men who have sex with men with a wide range of resources based on their geographic location. Said Ellman, "It’s critical to invest in this population and propel change."

After hearing the presentations, Bassett expressed enthusiasm for the shared sense of social justice evidenced in the various ideas. While the School readiness proposal was selected as the official winner, all of them had real potential to effect change.

"I’m struck by how practical and implementable these ideas are," she said, "And I will see that these ideas get additional hearing inside our city government."