Faculty Spotlight: Wei Yang

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The future of public health is intricately linked to epidemiology and health informatics. That’s why Wei Yang, online Master of Public Health professor and executive director of the Nevada Center for Surveys, Evaluation and Statistics, thinks it’s critical to train public health workers in these areas now. He has witnessed firsthand the widespread need for this expertise. Learn more below.

Can you describe your time as director of the State Center for Health Data and Research at the Nevada State Department of Health and Human Services? What was the most rewarding part of your role there?

At that time, I had two roles, data center manager and chief biostatistician for the whole state. One reward is that you learn what’s needed from many different programs statewide. You become exposed to statewide needs. This includes not only health care issues, but also how you can provide evidence and set up infrastructure for the state’s data needs based on that evidence.

What was your motivation for pursuing a career in public health education? When did you know this was what you wanted to do?

There are a few reasons I decided to move back to academia. One is that I felt the need for a trained workforce. At that point, the state health department was short of people officially trained through an MPH program. Among 700 staff we lacked MPH training, which is so critical for the public health workforce.

The other reason was to share my experience as a public health researcher and practitioner. I want to show students how to not only see the needs for the market, but also share the personal fulfillment I feel in this sector. A third factor was that working in academia gave me the opportunity to do public health research.

How does a background in epidemiology and biostatistics help you offer perspective on today’s public health challenges?

Epidemiology is the foundation of understanding both public health issues and the methodology to tackle those issues. It provides the opportunity to define and intervene. You have all levels of epidemiology skills to turn to when you’re dealing with public health issues.

For biostatistics, in my job, I find it rewarding because I see more need for that skill. The public health field needs your skills in biostatistics, and you can take advantage of that to get more grants and to help other people get grants. That’s because biostatistics help you answer research question more precisely, which works to further more scientific debates.

A large part of my work with data as a manager is looking for people. The market demand is very significant. Not only are we expanding and recruiting people, but we’re also losing people to other competitive places. I always have openings, and at the same time, there are people without the official training, which creates barriers to doing a high-quality job. These are jobs where you need training, especially in epidemiology concepts and biostatistics skills.

Talk about some of the significant advances you’ve seen in the field of epidemiology in recent years, and how they can impact population health.

One is health informatics. It makes information available and every aspect of data collection easier. It extends to data management, analysis, presentation and dissemination — it’s all easier compared to a few years ago. Also it was very expensive in the past and only a few high-level research institutes could do the job. Now any individual here, even a graduate student assistant — they can do the job, thanks to the power of the computer.

The second thing I noticed is the development of epigenetics. It’s already impacted the classic epidemiology and biostatistics, and it’s going to impact it more significantly in the coming years. I see in upcoming years that health informatics and genetics are going to change the future of public health. It is the future of public health.

How is public health changing? What are the trends you see that will shape the field in the coming years?

One is that people are living longer. There’s more chance to get a chronic condition when you live longer. Another would be the baby boomer population is getting older, so that population is not only living longer but it’s also growing. This leads to a need to expand the public’s understanding of the importance of prevention. This decreases society’s burden, and prevention is the most effective way to do that.

Next, there’s the technology and skills that come with improvement of medical technology. The burden of health care is we have to find a way to make it more efficient. Health informatics is one thing that’s making health care more effective. Prevention is another way.

What are the greatest public health challenges facing today’s MPH graduates?

This is perfect timing, because there is a national need for people working in public health on the most efficient way to be more preventive. Public health is at the core of the preventive movement.

There are three levels of prevention. The first level is to change behaviors to prevent disease. This is the most efficient way, because you can benefit socially and financially, and also the quality of life is improved. The second level of prevention would be to prevent through early screening. It’s not as efficient as the first level, but it’s still efficient if you prevent your disease from furthering and avoid expensive treatment. The third level of prevention is to prevent death. It’s a treatment. For that part, public health has a role, but it’s not as important as the clinicians. So the first level of prevention is the primary duty of public health.

What is the value of an MPH in today’s public health marketplace?

The value is the training. We need people to work in public health. One of public health’s jobs is to let people know what public health is. I think this is one of our biggest challenges. We need to have public understanding and we need policy-makers who understand.

What makes the University of Nevada, Reno online MPH program stand out?

We notice that employers usually hire our students right away during their field study time, and I rarely hear of students who couldn’t find work in the field. I know that once an employer hires one of our students, they will keep hiring ours. So we have several practitioners in other states and in federal programs now. Also, financially, I think our program would be ranked as one of the most economically efficient programs in the country.

Do you have questions? Learn more about your role in the future of public health with the University of Nevada, Reno’s online Master of Public Health program today. The School of Community Health Sciences at University of Nevada, Reno provides the educational and research experiences to transform students into the innovators, educators, practitioners and researchers that are needed to promote public health in our communities.