College welcomes new department head

Health economist Mahmud Khan sees economics as more than a collection of numbers and calculations. Rather, economics, he argues, offers an important lens to view complex health problems – and can help us make better decisions about how to tackle them.

As the new head of the department of health policy and management at the University of Georgia College of Public Health, Khan brings an interdisciplinary and hands-on style to public health research, instruction and leadership.

You began your academic career studying economics, what brought you to public health?

“I was always interested in applying the principles of economics to socioeconomic development, and one thing that became clear to me especially when I was working in Bangladesh was that you cannot separate economic development from the nutritional status of children and mothers. Malnutrition among children not only reduces their survival chances but also lowers their income earning potential as adults. Maternal nutrition impacted pregnancy outcomes as well. You cannot ignore health concerns in the discussion of economic progress and development. That brought me into the intersection of economics and public health and nutrition of the population.”

What are some of the great challenges facing public health today?

“Health is clearly a very important aspect of human life and wellbeing, and health by definition is multidimensional and multidisciplinary. You cannot address health issues just by looking at individual health alone. I think the major concern is that sometimes policymakers do not fully realize the importance of health and how health and economic development are correlated and interrelated.

For example, in this COVID-19 crisis, we can see people talk about the trade-off between economic growth and the preservation of health and wellbeing of the population. In reality, there is no trade-off. Public health professionals need to clarify the costs society will incur if we don’t do anything to contain the spread of the virus. What is the cost for a COVID case, in terms of mortality, disability, healthcare costs and in terms of days of lost productive work days? If you calculate all these costs, including the economic loss associated with deaths, it may be better to do social distancing in hopes that future productivity could be higher. Public health can play an important role in presenting this wider perspective.”

As a leader at the UGA College of Public Health, how do you plan to prepare the next generation of public health professionals to tackle big issues?

“Without a collaborative environment, public health cannot be effective. In terms of course offerings and the training of future public health leaders, the multidisciplinary aspects [of that training] are becoming more and more important. We are looking into the needs of individuals as well as communities, so it’s not only what kind of healthcare services do you have access to, but it’s about where you live, what is the environment like, so everything becomes part of public health. I think it’s a good sign that public health schools are doing well at integrating these concepts, and it’s important to be open to multidisciplinary discussions in our courses.”

What excites you about the opportunity to lead the department of health policy and management?

“The College and the department are relatively young. We have a brand new Master of Health Administration (MHA) program. We do not have an academic PhD program, though we have an applied Doctor of Public Health program that is very strong, so I do see a lot of new initiatives that can be done, and I see the opportunity to design and redesign the programs that could have long term implications for the department and the College. We have already started discussions on redesigning the MHA program to focus on disaster management skills in addition to administration of private health care institutions.”

What do you plan to teach at UGA?

“I’m not sure yet, but in the past, I have taught graduate courses in comparative health systems, health economics, which are the basic principles of economics applied to the health sector, and economic evaluation. I always want to take this applied approach because public health students come from many backgrounds, and many of them have never had an economics class or an interest in economics. You have to help them see why this framework is useful.”

What areas of research do you plan to continue or explore?

“My work has been mostly international in the last seven years, and I’ve focused in the areas of maternal and child health and more recently on childhood and adult immunizations, so I’d like to continue research opportunities in these areas. I am also interested in the analysis of health disparities and impact of COVID-19 across the U.S., especially in the South. Recently, I participated in the drafting of a grant proposal with Drs. Thapa and Zhang of HPAM, and the proposal intends to look at how the health sector and healthcare providers are coping with the pandemic and what lessons can we learn to better prepare for events like this in the future.

Another thing I’m interested in are the economic implications of COVID-19 on healthcare organizations, as in, how did COVID infections affect the financial situation of physicians, dentists and other healthcare professionals as well as hospitals and clinics. Another aspect that intrigues me is the underlying causes of differential rates of COVID-19 infections in different small geographic areas of the country even when the underlying risk-factors appear to be similar. This research should be able to identify the additional risk-factors and protective factors. Why is the infection rate lower than expected in some areas? What are they doing differently? I think that would be important to know for policy guidance.”

Dr. Khan received his bachelor and master’s degrees in economics from Dhaka University in Bangladesh and earned his doctorate from Stanford University. He was a faculty member of University of Dhaka in Bangladesh, University of Washington, Seattle, Tulane University in New Orleans and University of South Carolina, Columbia, before coming to UGA. He has conducted research and trainings in more than 30 countries of the world since 1990. He joined the UGA College of Public Health on July 1.

– Lauren Baggett

Posted on July 16, 2020.