Closing the Gap Between Public Health Goals and Reality

April 02, 2018 10:07 am David Mitchell

Norman Oliver, M.D., M.A., thinks family physicians bring a unique — and important — perspective to medical research. As president of the North American Primary Care Research Group,(www.napcrg.org) he should know.

[headshot of Norm Oliver, M.D., M.A.]

“We provide comprehensive care for the whole person,” Oliver said, “and we understand that whole person we’re trying to care for is connected to a family and community, and you have to deal with all their issues. From a research standpoint, family physicians bring an understanding of that complexity and the need to look at whatever you’re studying from a perspective that’s different from other specialties that tend to reduce issues to something more isolated.”

Oliver has spent years studying health disparities, particularly those related to cancer. Yet his most noteworthy research to date, he said, was his work as part of a University of Virginia School of Medicine team that found that unconscious racial bias in medicine is associated with unequal treatment.(www.pnas.org)

“For years, my research was funded by NIH, AHRQ (Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality) and various other grants,” Oliver said. “My colleagues and I did that study with no grant funding, but it was by far the most influential research I’ve done. That caught the imagination of the media.”

Oliver was chair of the University of Virginia School of Medicine Department of Family Medicine when its clinics where working to achieve recognition as patient-centered medical homes. During that process, he found himself intrigued by the work being done for patients outside the exam room.

“As I did that work, I became very involved in the population health aspect of primary care,” he said. “I was very excited about what we had done for the thousands of patients who came to see us in our clinics, but I wanted to do something on a bigger scale.”

Oliver found that scale as Virginia’s deputy commissioner for population health. In a state agency with roughly 4,000 employees and 35 districts, Oliver is responsible for pulling together all the people involved in population health work throughout the state, such as conducting community and statewide health assessments, helping to develop community health improvement plans, and prioritizing statewide health issues. He also collaborates with the numerous other state agencies that affect health issues, such as education and law enforcement, as well as with community and religious groups, businesses, and other stakeholders.

“We’re all trying to close the gap between our vision for public health and the reality, but often the work is done in a siloed kind of way,” he said. “We’re trying to get all sectors to align their efforts. If we do that, we’ll all make a much greater impact.”