As the latest group of graduates prepared to celebrate receiving their degrees, Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer, PhD, MPH, MEd, presented the Keck School of Medicine of USC’s PhD, MPH and MS Class of 2019 with three critical health challenges in today’s world and offered the graduates a framework to address those challenges in the coming years.

“These are very special times to be embarking on a career in health,” Ferrer said during the May 11 ceremony, held at USC’s Galen Center. “Within the challenges that define our health care system today are enormous opportunities to fundamentally shift our focus from disease care models to prevention and building health equity, from primarily fixing people to also fixing systems.”

The first challenge, she said, is a profound gap in health outcomes that is defined by race and ethnicity. In addition to highlighting the vastly differing infant mortality and longevity rates, Ferrer pointed out that the influx of resources into underserved communities has shown no real progress across the board in narrowing the gaps. The second challenge is an increasing number of youth who are being exposed to violence and trauma, while the third is the high cost of treating chronic disease.

“I don’t think we can address any of these challenges without fundamentally changing the way we think about health, and specifically, the role of public health,” Ferrer said. Health care professionals have a moral obligation to show the connection between good health outcomes and the condition in which people live their lives, she added.

“As health care practitioners, we may not necessarily lead the movement to dismantle racism, or ensure access to affordable housing and healthy foods,” Ferrer said. “But when we lend our voice to these efforts and we supply important data connecting health status to racism, and to housing and food access, we strengthen our collective ability to pass policies that promote good health.”

The ceremony, presided over by Keck School Dean Laura Mosqueda, MD, included addresses by PhD candidate Alexander Stover Falk and Master of Public Health candidate Megan Marie Kenney. This was the Keck School’s 14th ceremony for graduates with a degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Master of Academic Medicine, Master of Science and Master of Public Health.

— Melissa Masatani