Q&A with Dylan H. Roby, PhD, UCI Public Health’s new Associate Professor of Health, Society, & Behavior

A leading expert in the field, Roby brings 25 years of expertise in health policy research, reform, and capacity-building in settings from Capitol Hill to academia

Dr. Dylan Roby

Q: What drove you to pursue a career in public health? Academia?

I engaged in politics at a fairly young age. What began as an extracurricular activity in high school working on local congressional and presidential campaigns continued into my undergraduate years at UCLA when I started to focus on health policy, which became my professional focus.

Like many people, I thought the only way to truly get involved with policy was to work in Sacramento or on Capitol Hill for a legislator or agency. However, I was lucky to have early opportunities as an undergraduate in the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and then as a first-year Ph.D. student at the George Washington University Center for Health Policy Research that changed my perceptions about academia’s role in identifying problems and shaping policy solutions. As a research assistant at GW, I was able to work with leaders in executive agencies and think-tanks to shape policy by conducting timely research that provided evidence to support policy decisions. During this time, I began to think about how academics and scholars play a significant role in setting the agenda, informing policymakers, and influencing policy more than we realize.

What do you hope to achieve in the first five years of your UC Irvine tenure?

I’m thrilled to be involved in expanding health policy research, practice, and scholarship at the future School of Population and Public Health. I’ve always enjoyed contributing to places that are growing and expanding. I’m especially interested in working to improve our program’s ongoing efforts to address the needs of Orange County and California residents, especially our local Asian American and Latinx communities. I also look forward to figuring out how UCI can help local and regional policymakers and leaders to address public health problems and develop policy solutions.

Alongside my colleagues, I’ll be doing a lot of fact-finding and stakeholder engagement directly with Orange County communities, elected officials, state legislative contingencies, and experts across campus. We are hoping to recruit new faculty in health policy, health services research, and health care organizations who will be committed to increasing capacity, building bridges with local agencies, stakeholders, health care providers, and community groups to understand and advocate for the true needs of the communities we serve.

We are also considering developing new educational programs, including adding an MPH concentration in public health policy and management, as well as expanding training and research capacity on and beyond campus.

What are the crossroads that have come up between your work and the pandemic?

My work is primarily focused on health policy impacts on underserved populations, especially those served by public hospitals, community health centers, and Medi-Cal. I also do a lot of work examining disparities felt by racial/ethnic groups in health care outcomes. These minority populations are disproportionately affected by the pandemic when compared to those with higher incomes or power in the labor force. Take our essential workers, for example, many didn’t have the ability to quarantine or stay home from work throughout the pandemic. They were forced to go to work and put themselves and their family at risk of contracting and spreading SARS-CoV-2.

More recently, vaccine availability has made it so that essential workers are still in danger due to increased likelihood of exposure. I’m currently working on a paper with my former colleagues from the University of Maryland on the associations between county politics, socioeconomic status, vaccine uptake, and COVID-related mortality and using 2020 election data.

I also recently wrapped up a project with the Rockefeller Foundation that looked at the implementation of Baltimore’s Health Corps, an initiative to hire people who have been displaced from work due to the pandemic and training them to be community health workers and contact tracers. We published a report that will hopefully be helpful to other localities interested in developing a well-trained community health-focused workforce by leveraging workers needing opportunities in the hardest hit areas.

The pandemic has put public health center stage. Where does public health go from here? And how can higher education and institutes of learning help so we are in a better place moving forward?

It has become clear that there must be advances in health literacy. It’s true that some people distrust science, but the groups with active distrust (like anti-vaxxers) might only represent a fraction of the overall population. There’s a lot of misinformation out there that could take hold because people don’t know how to identify trusted sources or know how to critically examine and interpret new evidence. One problem we have is the conflicting messaging from governmental agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), news outlets, and other public health leaders due to changing conditions and scientific evidence. This is something the field of public health continues to struggle with. We need to do a better job of communicating uncertainty and providing guidance in the face of changing evidence so people can better protect themselves from emerging threats. Here we are, almost two years into the pandemic, and people are still focusing on handwashing and disinfecting surfaces when the newest evidence suggests that the most important interventions are ventilation (HEPA air cleaners and HVAC upgrades) and high-quality mask wearing (e.g., N95, KN95 and KF94).

We also need to train people to work in public health policy and management. We don’t typically train people who want to work at agencies like the CDC or county-level health departments to make managerial decisions or take on leadership roles. As a field, public health focuses on applying health behavior theory, doing policy analysis, analyzing data, and research methods. However, we have not historically trained MPH students in project management, public budgeting, or leading teams. It’s important that our MPH students – who may go on to work in these agencies – take courses in health policy and management so they develop a well-rounded skillset in health promotion, disease prevention, population health, equity, and management. The reverse is also true of people in more traditional health care management programs. We need them to understand the current move toward population health and address the social determinants of health so that they can respond to changing incentives in our health care system.

What do you enjoy most about teaching? What has been the most rewarding part about mentoring and training future public health practitioners?

I love exposing people to new concepts. It happens a lot in introductory courses to health policy. For example, in a class of over 100 undergraduates, 95% may have voted in the last election but aren’t necessarily interested in policy or healthcare administration. They might think it’s boring, or perhaps they feel disenfranchised by the political process. Through teaching, I’m able to get them interested in different policy issues, expose them to the intricacies of our healthcare system, and disseminate practical knowledge about the systems that impact their everyday lives. I am often approached by former students, once they enter the workforce, and they invariably thank me for teaching them how to select a health insurance plan or understand their health insurance benefits.

Share with us a project, study, or publication that you were part of where health equity played a central role.

I helped develop and continue to work on the UC Berkeley/UCLA California Simulation of Insurance Markets model (CalSIM). We do modeling for health policy stakeholders and Covered California to estimate insurance enrollment and take-up by certain populations. By simulating behaviors using a variety of data sources and assumptions, CalSIM helps us understand how different policy changes may affect the larger population and who might be left out by specific health care reform plans. Our modeling helps advise state and local health agencies’ outreach efforts with a goal to improve insurance enrollment among underserved populations.

What are you most looking forward to about PPH becoming a school?

Being a school helps elevate the profile of an institution, bringing attention and resources to build in areas that are needed. I look forward to contributing to the expansion of our programs and creating a bigger footprint in our local communities, especially in health policy, health care management and health equity. I also really like the students at UCI, they are mission-driven, diverse, and energetic. They are exactly who we need running public health agencies, working for policymakers, and leading health care systems.

What excites you most about Southern California?

Carne asada burritos, sunshine, and seeing friends and family. I was born and raised in SoCal, so I felt at home immediately despite several years in the DC area.


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