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Nov. 12, 2019

Renee Canady: Making vital changes for health equity

Nov. 13, 2019

Renee Canady is an assistant professor in the College of Human Medicine and CEO of the Michigan Public Health Institute. This content has been edited and repurposed from the Division of Public Health in the College of Human Medicine.

After earning my undergraduate degree, I spent two years in medical school . . . figuring out that I didn’t want to be a physician.

I realized I was motivated by the impact of illness on a person and his or her family, not from a biomedical or clinical perspective, but from a social perspective — how illness affects how people see themselves, how the family supports them, and how they figure out all of the systems they have to maneuver.

In the mid-1980s, I decided to transition from medical school into a career. During this same time, HIV, then called HTLV3, came on the scene. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allocated a large amount of funding for prevention, education and understanding HIV.

When the Ingham County Health Department created an AIDS educator position, I quickly applied and was very excited when I was hired to serve in that new role — my first job after I left medical school.

That position in the health department helped me develop a respect and appreciation for the power of community. The role was all about responding to the needs of community — in terms of knowledge and understanding, but also in terms of caring for people experiencing the disease at that time.

This began my career trajectory in public health; my subsequent academic preparation paralleled this journey.

All of my career has been about health equity — even though we didn’t always use that term. We’ve moved from a focus on “cultural competence,” to “diversity,” and now we are transitioning to “health equity.”

The challenge is, you can’t have that conversation without talking about the predominant barriers to good health — the issues of poverty, institutional racism, class discrimination and gender oppression. The solution is to eliminate the root causes of differences in health outcomes and experiences. Those of us in public health must be mindful of reversing those patterns.

If you’re going to do the work of health equity authentically, then you have to deal with the reasons why people are not healthy. And it’s not just about the poor personal choices that they’re making. If people are making poor choices, we should look at why healthy choices aren’t more readily available for all people.

This is the frame that we bring to the work with our master’s students. When MSU’s Master of Public Health degree program was launched and I was hired to teach, I was thrilled to be able to remain connected to this next generation of public health leaders. I think our focus is very much driven by our land-grant mission of access and outreach; I believe I bring those strengths to the health equity course I currently teach.

We are now in a time where public health must transform its practice and focus back to the root causes that precipitated the development of our field, especially the inequities experienced by those who were often marginalized and made vulnerable by the circumstances in which they live.

Today’s public health professionals must recognize this need to change, and advance the changes that will improve the health of all. This is an exciting and vital time for public health to advance an agenda of well-being that will make a significant change.

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