We reported on the University of Washington’s whole-of-university approach to improving population health at the IAPHS 2019 Annual Conference. We thought this topic would resonate with a broader section of the IAPHS membership beyond those who were able to attend our workshop, which was the inspiration for this post.
In 2016, University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce launched the Population Health Initiative by inviting the university’s three campuses and our external partners to come together in a more interdisciplinary and collaborative manner to create a world where all people can live healthier and more fulfilling lives.
The UW’s vision for improving population health is broad and thus needs contributions from every one of our schools and colleges. The role of the Population Health Initiative is to support this work by catalyzing and advancing the key programs, projects, and partnerships needed to accelerate the speed at which impact and progress can be realized.
The three of us have been part of the initiative’s leadership team since just after its inception. Based on our experiences to date, we offer the four following considerations and associated lessons learned for institutions thinking of taking a similar whole-of-university approach to addressing population health.
Consideration #1: Find ways to create a big tent
We quickly found there was a big appetite at the UW for interdisciplinary and collaborative work. This level of excitement was incredibly positive, but also posed challenges for how best to engage when so many wanted a seat at the table.
One of the initial steps taken was to create a 30-member internal governance body that includes broad faculty and student representation. Term limits were established, thereby ensuring a wide range of disciplines are represented over time. Other outreach efforts include engagement with the UW’s Board of Deans and Chancellors, as well as regular interaction with a range of faculty, students, and staff, both in-person and virtually.
A major lesson: working together in person is important. These experiences working with people from other disciplines allowed us to learn each other’s language, identify key stakeholders in a range of units and thematic areas, and to start building organic collaborations to scale the initiative’s work.
A major thrust of the initiative has been to deploy our funding in ways that incentivize interdisciplinary collaboration.
A highly successful mechanism has been our internal pilot grant program, which supports interdisciplinary faculty teams seeking to establish proof-of-concept for innovative approaches to improving population health. We have awarded 23 grants to faculty teams representing 47 different departments thus far. These teams have realized a variety of positive results, including journal publications and successful pursuit of follow-on funding.
Another collaboration mechanism we deployed was to offer temporary bridge funding for three new faculty positions; each of these had to be proposed as a joint hire between different academic departments. We have also launched several new interdisciplinary education and training programs for students.
Each of these mechanisms has been a powerful incentive to pull together different experts to take on inherently interdisciplinary thematic areas.
Consideration #3: Low-cost activities can have a large impact
The initiative has been successful in deploying a number of lower-touch, lower-cost activities that in some cases have resonated more with faculty than the funding opportunities we support.
For example, any faculty member submitting a population health-related grant application can request a letter of support signed by our president. We also organize internal networking sessions organized around thematic areas like adverse childhood experiences and humanitarian assistance to make it easier for faculty to meet potential new collaborators.
It is important to note that while these are light-touch activities, they still require infrastructure in place to make them happen. It is also important to be realistic in setting expectations in that you cannot expect, for example, a large grant application to immediately come from a single networking session.
Consideration #4: Make it easy for external collaborators to partner with the university
The UW’s enormous size can make it challenging for external parties to identify how best to engage us when trying to solve inherently interdisciplinary challenges, particularly when they do not know which discipline has the “answer” or expertise they need.
The initiative thus acts as front porch for potential partners, supporting them in easily and seamlessly exploring and engaging the full breadth of population health–related expertise at the UW.
An important consideration for this type of an approach is a central project manager to oversee the strategy and moving parts for large, multi-school, multi-topic partnerships. Another is to dedicate some small seed funding for travel or faculty time to accelerate the pace of partnering discussions around specific projects