Better Health for the Many

December 11, 2013 | Salute to Scholars, The University

AFTER A BUSY, HEARTBREAKING NIGHT as a pediatrician for a neonatal unit in a city with the highest infant mortality rate in the country, Dr. Ayman A.E. El-Mohandes decided that if he really wanted to help as many patients as possible, he needed to study public health.

That was in the mid-1980s in Washington, D.C.

Today, El-Mohandes is also an epidemiologist — and an internationally recognized public health trailblazer.

Dr. Ayman El-Mohandes, dean of the CUNY School of Public Health, chats with students on the school’s terrace.

Dr. Ayman El-Mohandes, dean of the CUNY School of Public Health, chats with students on the school’s terrace.

In May, he was appointed dean of CUNY’s School of Public Health, the only public institution of its kind in the nation to span public health education from the associate degree to doctoral-level training. Previously, he was dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, where he oversaw major expansions. A George Washington University professor emeritus, he has been a National Institutes of Health researcher on infant mortality reduction in minority communities He has conducted research in Egypt, where he was born and educated as a physician, South Africa, Indonesia and in American Indian and Alaskan native communities.

Of the clinical days in Washington, El-Mohandes says, “I was taking care of one prematurely born or sick infant after another, running after gurneys carrying pregnant women at high risk. It was a tremendous drain on the families who loved and cared for these children. One night in the intensive care unit I pondered the predictability of the scenario and thought there must be a better way to help. Once the patient left the clinic I could only be concerned in a very theoretical way. But in public health I am dealing with the grass roots.”

Can you define “public health”?
Public health is the system that is not recognized until it breaks. When you walk into the shower and the water is hot, abundant and clean, you don’t recognize the need for public health. But if you put the shower on and all that comes down is a trickle of foul smelling water, you immediately think: Public Health!

So, how do you fix the water — and so much more?
It takes looking at things on a deeper level — the very significant challenge of understanding the combined psychosocial and environmental risk factors that engulf communities. Behind disease lie factors that may not be biological in nature. And this is true whether you are talking about bronchial asthma in children, obesity, preterm birth and infant death, occupational hazards and more. As you study the ecological and the broad, comprehensive global path of risk progression you always end up with common problems that manifest themselves in different ways. One time it may be because a bus terminal is polluting a community. Another time it is because there is no outlet for fresh fruits and vegetables. Or the streets are not safe and people can’t take a walk. Or people don’t have access to good housing or good education.
What role will the CUNY School of Public Health play in this?
The school here is newly accredited. It will offer a unique platform that I don’t think any other university in the United States has. Today 70 percent of the workforce in public health does not have a master’s degree. And we are offering master’s and doctorate of public health programs. But we can also offer certificates and associate degrees in public health, which is important because many departments of health today are hiring high school graduates. That is all they can afford. Even our competitors in the region, which are Ivy League schools, cannot offer this continuum. And the affordability here is obvious.

How will you work with the entire University community?
We are already a consortium of three colleges [Brooklyn, Hunter, Lehman] and the Graduate Center. But now I am reaching out, and others are reaching out to me. The school is an umbrella seeking to expand its partnerships. For example, the School of Professional Studies is interested in providing public health certificates to people who are already in the field or in related ones. John Jay is looking at the interface between criminal justice and public health. We are starting to have a tremendous diversity of programs at the master’s level. Lehman College, for example, has started a program in geographic information systems. I feel like I am partnering with a winning team and public health is all about teams.

Are you and your family enjoying New York?
I loved Omaha. It is economically vibrant; it is the Lichtenstein of the Middle West. But Cairo, as a huge metropolis, gave us the skills for living here in New York, the ultimate urban environment. My wife — she was born in Alexandria and works for the Export-Import Bank of the United States — and I feel so at home here. We have two daughters in California. We are very close to them and they are very excited that we have moved here.