Dean Laura Siminoff is a nationally recognized public health social scientist, focusing on cancer treatment decision-making, informed consent, health communication, health disparities, bioethics, and issues of organ and tissue donation. A year ago, she joined Temple University’s College of Public Health (CPH), where she is driving unprecedented growth and momentum. We spoke with Dean Siminoff for her one-year anniversary, reflections on what she’s accomplished, her future plans for CPH, and her thoughts on how the college will impact the field of public health.
What is the most exciting thing you’ve accomplished in the last year?
Our move from being the College of Health Professions and Social Work (CHPSW) to the College of Public Health (CPH). This is more than just a name change. I moved the college under the rubric of public health to signify a comprehensive approach to health education and research, because I wanted the college to be more than just siloed groups of different health professions. I believe that public health offers an overarching framework for all disciplines concerned with maintaining people’s health, illness intervention strategies, and helping patients with chronic problems sustain their way of life.
Today, we are an integrated college both in terms of education and research, across this spectrum of disciplines, which is not the traditional way that public health higher education institutions typically function. But if we consider where we are moving as a nation and as a field, I think this is the way to move forward and puts CPH ahead of the curve. We are also applying for accreditation for the entire college, inclusive of all our departments. Accreditation will benefit students and faculty alike with additional research and training opportunities.
What challenges are public health education professionals and institutions facing, and how is the field changing in terms of clinical and field education?
The field of public health rapidly changes. Public health professionals need to be prepared for and understand that what they were taught in 2015 may be outdated by 2025, for instance.
We are in an age that focuses on infectious diseases and chronic diseases, whereas previous periods have put more of an emphasis on one or the other. As I said before, healthcare is constantly changing and the field has had to and will continue to have to respond to changes, not just in crisis situations but also with prevention and health maintenance solutions. Public health responds to point in time crises like Ebola, but it also is helping to consider our aging population and how we can assure that we assist this population to not only live longer but live better.
How do the changes in the public health field impact how you teach students?
Health research is now a team science, and we’ve come to understand how people maintain their health is complicated. It is a process between behavior, environment, genes, culture, and other factors, and we are training teams to come up with answers to some of our most complicated and pressing questions, issues, and concerns.
CPH is moving towards inter-professional education, which means students that are pursing different disciplinary areas will take classes together and interact with each other so that they will receive a holistic view of the field. We will facilitate problem-based learning to give students hands-on experiences earlier in their education. And, we will also build interdisciplinary research teams. For example, we are building new research labs for physical therapy and kinesiology departments so that they can share equipment and space, providing them an opportunity to cross-fertilize their ideas.
What research are you working on now that you’d like to share with us?
My research is concentrated in two areas of health communications. The first is cancer care. I assist cancer patients make better treatment decisions and help them communicate better with their families and healthcare teams. I also do work in organ and tissue donation. Right now, we are conducting a national study to test an intervention for organ procurement staff. These are the people who make requests to family members who have a relative that died in a hospital and were eligible to donate organs. Our hope is that they will be able to communicate better with the families, increase consent to donation and, consequently, the supply of organs to patients in need of a transplant.
I’m also doing an interesting project on biobanking, which focuses on how to obtain tissues from deceased donors to allow researchers to study gene expression in normal tissues. This scientific research is the wave of the future, yet there is a shortage of tissue for research. We are part of the team that is looking at how to set up national biobanks, how to distribute information about them, and what to do with the genetic information that will be gathered. All of this research has practical implications.