College of Health Dean Whitney P. Witt on preserving and improving the well-being of our communities
Whitney P. Witt
Dean Whitney P. Witt (center) is leading the development of the college of Health, which will launch in Fall 2020.

Interview by Chris Quirk

In January 2019, Whitney P. Witt was appointed as the inaugural dean of Lehigh’s new College of Health. She is an experienced leader in the field of population health, with a distinguished career spanning government, private, nonprofit, and academic spheres. Prior to arriving at Lehigh, Dean Witt directed the Center for Maternal and Child Health Research at IBM Watson Health. She holds a doctorate and a master’s degree in public health from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Harvard University School of Medicine.

Q: How did you become involved in public health and decide to pursue it as a career?

A: I received a degree in law and women’s studies from Hampshire College and was headed to law school. First, I went to New York City and worked as a legal advocate for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, one of the oldest AIDS organizations in the country.

Most of the work that we did was around landlord-tenant issues, because at that time, so many people were getting very sick and could no longer work, and they were in danger of being evicted from their homes. We were trying to prevent them from becoming homeless. And it was in that moment I realized I wanted to understand health policy, and how we could better support some of our most vulnerable populations. So I switched gears and started looking for public health programs, and I found a wonderful one in health policy and management at Johns Hopkins.

I’m telling you all of this because many people in the field often end up there by chance. And in the College of Health, we’ll have the opportunity to introduce students to this field very early in their career, as undergraduates. So that’s very exciting. 

Q: What persuaded you to take the reins of the new College of Health?
A: We have an opportunity at Lehigh to train undergraduate, graduate, and professional students in the kinds of innovations that are being developed—mostly in the private sector right now—but are being applied in real-time in health and health care. We can also have students begin to think innovatively and creatively about how to solve problems using these innovations, whether it’s artificial intelligence or virtual reality. My time at IBM very much informed my vision, and I think the power of this technology is going to make health care more efficient and effective, and it will empower and free health care providers on the front lines to bring the “care” back into health care. 

Q: The College of Health’s focus is population health. What is population health, and how is it distinguished from public health?
A: Traditionally, public health has been focused on providing services to improve the health of communities. Vaccination and health promotion programs are examples. Population health is part of the larger field of public health, and is the science of understanding multiple determinants, from cell to society. That means everything—from your DNA to health policies—that might affect access to care, and how those determinants interact to produce the outcomes we observe on a population level. For instance, with a particular outcome there may be biological factors involved. You might also look at sociodemographic information and clinical information. You put that all into a statistical model that would show the most important risk factors, which could inform how a public health practitioner might address that particular health condition or outcome. Population health is a data science that provides critical insights that stand to make an impact on millions of lives.
Q: Are there health challenges particularly suited to a population health approach?
A: Definitely. In the U.S. we’ve seen a decrease in life expectancy for the first time in several decades. This is partially due to the alarming number of opioid-related deaths among young people. We’ve also seen a dramatic increase in neonatal abstinence syndrome as a result of pregnant mothers with opiate use disorder. So domestically, that’s one of the biggest challenges we have.
Around the world, we’re seeing growing rates of obesity and physical inactivity that are contributing to an increasing incidence of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. There are also emerging health issues, like Zika, antimicrobial resistance, and the impact of air pollution and climate change.
Q: What are the initial goals for the college and what do you see as its mission?

A: The mission of the College of Health is to leverage population health science to understand, preserve, and improve the health and well-being of populations and communities through excellence and innovation in three areas: education, research, and service. The college also aims to prepare the next generation of students—who will be highly skilled, diverse scientists and leaders in the field of population health—through novel coursework, distance learning, and experiential learning.

We’ll be the first university in the nation to offer an undergraduate bachelor’s of science degree in population health with a focus on health innovation and technology. We intend disrupt the educational model through incorporating experiential learning opportunities. We will give students the foundational courses in population health, but much of what we want them to have under their belts is the application of those concepts in the real world. That will be a very important part of our educational process.
Q: Is there anything in particular that an academic institution—rather than a corporate or advocacy entity—can bring to the table to improve population health outcomes?
A: Yes, absolutely. Academic institutions overall bring scientific rigor and expertise. We also bring some critically important, substantive knowledge about how innovations created in the private sector can be effectively implemented into health and health care. A lot of the private entities that are creating these tools—and they’re amazing tools—don't always understand the context in which they’re being implemented. And that’s where we can help.
We also have the methodological expertise in terms of data analysis. Health and health care data are different than other types of data, and sometimes particular approaches are needed to analyze those data. Finally, we bring a deep understanding of how to interpret health data, and translate that into action and into policy reform.
Q: How do you foresee working with the Rossin College at the junction of health and engineering?
A: The history of public health is actually rooted in engineering. John Snow was a physician in London in the 1850s who identified the source of a cholera outbreak. It was a public water pump, and he broke the handle off the pump and was able to stop the outbreak. Snow is really the grandfather of the public health field, and I see this story as an example of the profound intersection between the fields of public health, population health, and engineering.
What’s wonderful about Lehigh is that health research and educational programs are occurring in every college. So there’s a rich foundation from which to build. Also, there’s a spirit of entrepreneurship here that I would like to see instilled in the College of Health.