New SIU department focuses on ‘social determinants of health’

By Dean Olsen, The State Journal-Register, Springfield, Ill.

Informing medical students about the social and economic hardships that can influence the health of patients and intervening to alleviate those problems are primary goals of a new department at Springfield’s Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.

“We want this department to be of benefit to the region,” Dr. Sameer Vohra, founding chairman of SIU’s Department of Population Science and Policy, said Monday. “We want this to grow and mature in a way that we can have sustained excellence.”

Vohra, 35, a Chicago native and former Fulbright scholar who received both medical and law degrees from SIU, previously headed SIU’s Office of Population Science and Policy. That office operated for slightly more than a year before the office became a full department July 1.


The change reflects SIU’s “deep commitment to improving health care in our rural communities,” medical school dean and provost Dr. Jerry Kruse said in a news release.

The department’s staff of about 20 people includes SIU employees who previously were part of the office, as well as five to seven more people who were added more recently, Vohra said Monday.

He said he and some other staffers received pay increases in recognition for their increased responsibility in the department. Total estimated spending on the department was unavailable.

SIU spokeswoman Lauren Crocks said the department’s funding comes from a combination of state appropriations to the medical school, as well as state grants and contracts secured by the department.

Since the inception of the Office of Population Science and Policy in October 2016, and continuing since the department began this summer, the staff has been involved in a variety of projects in SIU’s 66-county territory — home to 2.2 million people in central and southern Illinois.

The projects focus on “population health” and what are known as the “social determinants of health,” Vohra said. Social determinants are factors that can range from poverty, access to health care and education to housing and violence.

SIU’s department — the first new department at the medical school in almost 30 years — is one of only a few at U.S. medical schools to study and work to counteract negative social determinants in rural areas, Vohra said.


The department’s initial projects are addressing the opioid epidemic in far southern Illinois, childhood growth and development, and cancer disparities in rural communities.

The creation of a department will allow Vohra and his colleagues to become much more involved in the teaching of medical students, Vohra said.

Medical students will become better doctors if they have more knowledge of, and appreciation for, the ways a patient’s living situation and background can affect his or her health, Vohra said.

Doctors with this education and perspective will be better able to help patients navigate the health-care system, comply with medical recommendations and live healthier lives, Vohra said.


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