New Health Disparities Institute Director Arrives Next Month

Wizdom Powell joins UConn Health as director of the Health Disparities Institute Aug. 15, 2017. (Photo provided by Wizdom Powell)

For incoming Health Disparities Institute Director Wizdom Powell, personal motivations enhance her professional aspirations.

Powell’s life work to push medicine toward overcoming health inequities is fueled in part by the passing of her maternal grandfather from what she describes as “a preventable cancer” when he was in his early 50s.

“When you have that kind of personal experience—and he was the patriarch of the family, the single father—it had tremendous intergenerational consequences for my family,” Powell says. “One of the things at a basic human level for me that I wanted to achieve in my life’s work is to prevent other families from losing the men and boys who they love before it’s their time.”

Powell arrives to carry out that mission at UConn Health Aug. 15. For the last 10 years she’s been on the faculty of the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, most recently as an associate professor in the Department of Health Behavior.

“Dr. Powell brings a tremendous level of expertise to our efforts here to address health disparities,” says Dr. Bruce Liang, dean of the UConn School of Medicine. “We look forward to the differences she will help us make as we aim to reshape the future of medicine and improve access to care for all.”

A former White House fellow, Powell served with the Obama administration as a special adviser on military and mental health policies to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. She currently is a member of the Aspen Institute’s 2016-2018 class of Health Innovators Fellows, which provides a platform to launch novel approaches to improving the health and well-being of Connecticut residents.

“I think for me the primary appeal of this appointment and this opportunity was to be able to really create and evidence-for-action agenda,” Powell says. “I’ve long been engaged and doing rigorous scientific research and then also doing policy translation work, and I’m really interested in being able to more intentionally wed those activities together to implement more structural change to address health inequities and disparities.”

Her faculty appointment to the UConn School of Medicine is associate professor of psychiatry.

Powell’s work has focused on health disparities and inequities among men of boys of color in the United States.

“I was really drawn to focus on the health of boys and men, both by the gloomy social epidemiological data that tell us that men and boys in the United States live shorter lives than women and girls, and when you look within men and boys, you see a striking disparity for boys and men of color,” Powell says. “From a pure scientific standpoint, those disparities and inequities to me were too glaring to ignore. I as a psychologist really became interested in trying to take a look at the social determinants of those disparities, thinking these things can’t be entirely biologically embedded.”

Powell says she plans to spend a lot of her time at the start meeting with community organizations and other stakeholders, establishing and strengthening partnerships to gain an understanding of their needs and a their perspective on what a health equity agenda would look like. She also has ideas of her own.

“Part of that is getting out of our own heads as scientists and thinking more about how we can development more processes for rapid-cycle innovation in the health equity space,” Powell says. “So when I talk about evidence for action, I really want to create more linkages between the institute and community, but also between the institute and industry, and other nontraditional partners in this work who have great implications for how we think about health disparities.”

And that includes learning about approaches that have had success already, but academic institutions may not be aware of that success yet.

While the data show health disparities to be more prevalent in minority populations, Powell believes the implications are farther reaching.

“I really think that health equity and disparities are an American problem,” Powell says. “It is not possible to compete in a global marketplace, to be at the cusp of innovation, to make a contribution to the world, if half your population or more are dying before they’re able to really contribute to the country’s innovation and productivity. I think it’s hugely important, and I can’t think of a time in our history where these issues are more pressing.”