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A collaborative approach to community health issues

ASU College of Health Solutions celebrates 10 years of health innovation, looks forward


two people making soup
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October 10, 2022

Sometimes a good idea doesn’t have to be sold, it just needs the chance to be heard.

That’s how the idea behind Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions revealed itself to Dorothy Sears, the college’s executive director of clinical and community translational science and professor of nutrition.

As the College of Health Solutions celebrates its 10th anniversary, faculty, staff and alumni are reflecting on the history of the school while looking forward to what’s next. 

The college was formed in 2012 when a group of separate academic units located across three campuses were brought together under one umbrella to offer students a comprehensive education in health.

In 2017, the new leader of the College of Health Solutions, Deborah Helitzer, was asked by ASU President Michael Crow to reimagine how those separate units could be better aligned to address the ASU Charter. That charter says that ASU must assume, among other things, fundamental responsibility for the overall health of the communities it serves.

With that charge, and a courageous changemaker at the helm, a collaborative process began to better align the college’s mission and structure with the university’s charter.

That idea appealed to Sears, who had a taste of a similar collaborative effort while working on a grant from the National Institutes of Health at a previous institution. The only problem was once that grant ran out, so did the spirit of collaboration.

But a chance meeting with College of Health Solutions Associate Dean and Professor Carol Johnston while Sears was on her way to a scientific conference in Mexico gave her an idea where she could find that collaborative spirit again.

Sears said, “While we flew down together, we just talked, talked and talked waiting for the plane and in line at customs and waiting to get bags. We had so much in common.”

Johnston later invited Sears to come to ASU to give a talk and she fell in love with the place.

“I was seeing the beautiful new facilities, that was the initial attraction; I wasn’t even considering leaving my (previous) institution at that point,” Sears said. “Then meeting (College of Health Solutions) Dean Deborah Helitzer was amazing. I felt like I had landed on another planet.

“Learning how the dean had led a process that resulted in eliminating all the departments in the college, I was like, wooo! This is awesome!”

ASU College of Health Solutions Dean Deborah Helitzer stands at the front of a large auditorium, behind a lectern, next to a presentation slide that reads "Visioning Exercise #1."

College of Health Solutions Dean Deborah Helitzer (at podium) leads a visioning exercise shortly after arriving at Arizona State University in 2017.

A new approach to educating health leaders

The evolution of the College of Health Solutions was well underway by the time Sears came on board in 2018.

In 2012, Dr. Keith Lindor, former dean of the Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine, was named executive vice provost and founding dean of a newly formed College of Health Solutions. Lindor worked to create a new school for the science of health care delivery and strengthen the university’s partnership with Mayo Clinic.

The new health college also included previously existing academic units such as:

  • School of Nutrition and Health Promotion.

  • Department of Biomedical Informatics.

  • School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering.

  • Center for Health Innovation and Clinical Trials.

  • Center for Health Information and Research.

  • Center for World Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.

  • Health Care Delivery and Policy Program.

  • Healthcare Transformation Institute.

Those early years saw the college as a collection of health-related units and faculty with significant domain expertise who were spread out across three ASU campuses. Bringing that collection together to form a unified, integrated college would require significant change – change that might not be popular with everyone.

Julie Liss, now an associate dean and professor in the College of Health Solutions, came to ASU in 2013 as a professor in the former Department of Speech and Hearing Science, said that while some adapted to the change reluctantly, others embraced it.

“Other people were saying, ‘Wow, I’m meeting more people than I’ve ever known in the college, I’m able to do things I had never been able to do before,’” Liss said.

She said that accelerated when Helitzer was named dean of the College of Health Solutions in 2017.

“There were two eras,” Liss said. “The Dean Lindor era was getting all of our building blocks in place. The Dean Helitzer era was figuring out how those blocks could build something bigger, synergistically.”

Accelerating a rocket of change

Helitzer came to ASU from the University of New Mexico where she was the founding dean of the College of Population Health. While there, she led the development and implementation of the country’s first undergraduate degree in population health.

Her innovative work there caught the attention of ASU President Michael Crow. She was charged with leading the process of reimagining how the college could be positioned to best address major health issues in the community.

And she was asked to do it quickly.

Portrait of ASU College of Health Solutions Dean .

Deborah Helitzer

“When President Crow introduced me to the faculty he said, ‘I told her I’m going to put her on a rocket and I’m expecting fast change,’” Helitzer said. “I said, ‘Well, President Crow, if you give me the fuel...' Everyone laughed and said, ‘We’re going to have to watch out for her.’”

In the fall of 2017 Helitzer assembled and led an executive visioning team working to reimagine what the college would become. That visioning project included ideas and input from 300 faculty, staff, administrators, community members and health system representatives. A new vision and structure emerged and Helitzer began leading the implementation of that vision, knocking down barriers to collaboration.

“There was no understanding of each other, no knowledge of each other,” Helitzer said. “The faculty were in the same physical building but didn’t know each other or talk to each other. We’ve worked to create structures to address that and we’re still working on it, but I’ve tried to put us on the path.”

One big idea that came out of the visioning effort is the formation of translational teams. 

A unique approach to health solutions

Translational teams, a component of the new college structure, bring together researchers, teaching faculty, clinical and community partners, industry innovators and students with different skills and perspectives. By bringing all kinds of people together, translational teams aim to better understand the different layers of the problem they are trying to solve from the ground up. This translational approach takes advantage of the school’s work to break down barriers that have traditionally stopped faculty and students from different disciplines from working together.

It’s a holistic approach to solving the problems facing health care professionals and the essence of understanding the whole person, rather than specific diseases.

“You can look at the molecular level of a disease or condition,” Johnston said. “Then you can look at the dietary and exercise components. And then you can see how (that solution) can be introduced into a community to promote population health. You have all those fields going on. The translational piece is unique. I never heard of it until we started doing it.”

Translational teams at the College of Health Solutions are working on health problems including:

  • Autism spectrum disorder.

  • Cancer prevention and control.

  • COVID-19.

  • Metabolic health.

  • Substance abuse.

They are studying the health needs of specific populations, such as women, children and those with significant health disparities, because those groups have special needs that are not experienced by other populations.

In addition to the creation of translational teams, the revisioning process also resulted in a charter for the College of Health Solutions.

That charter reads:

"The College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University is committed to translating scientific health research and discovery into practice. We prepare students to address the challenges facing our populations to stay healthy, improve their health and manage chronic disease. We bring people together to improve the health of the communities we serve, reaching them where they live, learn, work and play throughout the lifespan."

That statement helps to provide direction and focus, as well as some insight into the future of the College of Health Solutions. The college’s charter is directly aligned with the ASU Charter, specifically the last phrase, which mentions community health.

In the coming years, Helitzer sees the college being recognized as leading innovation in the field of health education, just as the university as a whole is recognized for innovation.

She would also like to see the college as having played an integral role in addressing the health needs of the community.

“It is critical that we work with the community to solve their problems, not what we see as their problems, but what they see as their problems,” Helitzer said. “That means our faculty must be nimble and will change or tweak what they’re doing to fit the needs of the community.”

Helitzer related that goal with something she experienced while working on malaria prevention in Africa. She said her group was talking to people about taking steps such as using bed nets and screens and ridding the area of standing water to control mosquitos.

“I remember going to one village and saying we want to help you with this,” she said. “They said, ‘First you get us running water and then we’ll be happy to talk with you about that.’ We worked on getting running water in the area and then they trusted us because that was what they needed. Then we could talk about malaria, which was also a problem for them, but it wasn’t the primary problem.”

Another outcome Helitzer would like to see as a result of the collaborative structure is for the students to gain a broader understanding of what the college has to offer and the many ways they can learn to make an impact.

“I’ve been saying we should have the first-year students have a course, or two semesters, to learn about all of the programs in the college and how we work together,” Helitzer said. “Then they could choose a major, knowing what role it plays in solving health problems.”

Helping students achieve their goals

Students are attracted to the forward-thinking, innovative nature of the College of Health Solutions, offering them a unique path toward meaningful change in health.

Vivienne Gellert, BS medical studies ’17, said her personal experience with health care shaped her views of the system and inspired her to take action. She said her education at the College of Health Solutions helped her reach those goals.

Gellert was badly injured in an automobile accident while she was in high school and saw first hand how frustrating and inefficient the system could be.

“You can ask anyone and they’ll tell you the health care system is broken,” Gellert said. “It’s easy to say that and get super frustrated with it, but at the end of the day, what are you going to do about it? In order to do something about it, we have to do something different and (the College of Health Solutions) prepared me to do just that.”

Gellert’s solution started with putting an argument she used in debate class into action. Her idea was based on connecting with people who are experiencing homeless in downtown Phoenix. The title of that speech was “Give a man your jacket, not your dollar.”

That led to the creation of a nonprofit organization called BakPak while Gellert was still in college. It was designed to directly connect people experiencing homelessness to resources and became the basis for a nonprofit, Elaine, and a company she has since founded named Gellert Health.

She said her education in medical studies helped her carry out her vision. And she said the College of Health Solutions will help countless others achieve their goals as well.

“If you look at some of the graduates of the College of Health Solutions I’ve met, they’re incredible,” Gellert said. “They are going to medical school. They are starting their own companies. They are going to work for companies that are directly touching patients' lives and they’re bringing new knowledge from their education to implement change.

“In the spirit of the 10th anniversary, I think we should take a minute to look at the contributions that the College of Health Solutions has already made to our community. They should feel honored they’re there every day with these students. It’s working.”

The College of Health Solutions will celebrate its 10th anniversary in collaboration with the community at Celebration of Health on Wednessday, Oct. 19, at El Chorro in Paradise Valley, Arizona. Sponsorships and tickets are available and all donations will directly support students through the college’s Student Scholarship Fund.

Top photo: ASU nutrition students make a low-sodium, diabetic-friendly Tuscan vegetable soup at the ASU Kitchen Café in the College of Health Solutions in downtown Phoenix. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

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