• October 18, 2021
 Assistant Secretary for Health Says All Students Can Contribute to Public Health

Admiral Brett P. Giroir, M.D., assistant secretary for health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, spoke to students, faculty, staff and community members during a Centennial Lecture at the Undergraduate Learning Center. Giroir spoke about public health and how people from a variety of disciplines can contribute to its advancement. Photo: Laura Trejo/UTEP Communications

Assistant Secretary for Health Says All Students Can Contribute to Public Health

When Admiral Brett P. Giroir, M.D., first stood up in front of an audience at the Undergraduate Learning Center, it was clear that he was prepared to deliver a message that was very important to him.

It was simple, straightforward, but also ambitious: he said there was a need to transfer our public health system from a sick care system to a health promotion system.

Assistant secretary for health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Giroir leads the development of HHS-wide public health policy recommendations and oversees 11 core public health offices, three presidential and 11 secretarial advisory committees.

Giroir was the first physician to be appointed as an office director at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Prior to those roles, the first-generation college student cared for critically ill children for 14 years as a pediatric critical care physician.

Giroir began his presentation on a positive note by showing a graph of the increase in life expectancy in the U.S. from 1900 to 2015. He attributed the increase to improvements in disease treatment and care for accident victims.

Then, the tone of Giroir’s presentation became somber. The admiral said that from 2015 to 2017, life expectancy decreased in the U.S. – something that hadn’t happened since the flu pandemic in the early 1900s. For the first time in decades, our children may live shorter lives than we do, he said.

Giroir showed other charts highlighting the high number of HIV cases nationally and treatment expenditures; statistics on drug abuse, misuse and overdose; and predictions on obesity rates in the U.S.

Next, Giroir posed questions that he says he often asks himself – What do we do? Is there an opportunity to move forward? The solution, Giroir said, is not medical care per se, but public health.

“I want all the students to understand how critically important everyone is in this game,” Giroir said. “The future of medicine is as much about engineering, physics and math as it about biology.”

Giroir said there is a role for anyone interested in public health, whether its social science to understand how people can change their eating behaviors or communication and journalism to help get the word out.

It was a message that resonated with many of the students in the crowd, including Prya Darshni, a UTEP doctoral student studying electrical engineering. Currently, Darshni is working on her dissertation that involves antennas for radars, but with newfound inspiration, she has a new goal for after graduation. She is planning to contribute to the medical field by developing biomedical instruments.

“I can make some contributions to this field because it is very inspiring,” Darshni said. “Even though I am (studying) electrical engineering, that is something I can do. I cannot prescribe medicines, but I can do this. I can use my engineering skills and develop instruments that will help improve medicine.”

Giroir’s overall message focused on the need to prioritize public health innovation. He called it the need for an “internet moment” when it comes to public health. He then showed a sketch of a diagram on a piece of paper. The diagram showed an early image of an idea that soon grew to develop the world wide web. He turned again to the audience, specifically the students, telling them to get involved and use their talents for public health.

“Public health is not just an option,” Giroir said. “Public health is the most important issue of our country moving forward in the next few decades. So I really urge a public health consideration to be in curriculum, whether in engineering, teaching, social sciences, medicine, biology, because everybody has a role in this. Because if we leave out some of those blocks, we’re not going to get there.”

John Ciubuc, a doctoral student in biomedical engineering, agreed with Giroir’s idea that public health needs to be addressed through different perspectives. Ciubuc compared the human body to programming and how the two are approached in nearly identical ways.

“All these underlying systems, (Giroir) brought them to the forefront and showed everybody where these systems are, how you can put yourself into the system and start influencing it in a positive way,” Ciubuc said.

Giroir visited The University of Texas at El Paso Thursday, March 28 as part of the ongoing Centennial Lecture Series.

The Centennial Lecture Series invites noteworthy speakers to the UTEP campus to share their perspectives on a broad range of contemporary issues that are likely to impact our society, culture and lives in the years ahead.

The next featured speaker is Doma Tshering, the ambassador of Bhutan, who will speak at 4:30 p.m. April 2 at the Tomás Rivera Conference Center on the third floor. The lecture is free and open to the public.

Author:  Jesse Martinez – UTEP Communications

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