"I want students to leave my classes knowing that they can contribute to the improvement of our health care system. Students should become effective change agents," Professor Tom Wickizer says. From 1997 to 2002, Wickizer was the Rohm and Haas Distinguished Professor in Public Health Sciences at the University of Washington's School of Public Health. A faculty member since 1989, he teaches courses on the US (United States) health care system and on health economics.
Wickizer is a former Peace Corps volunteer, having served in Ghana from 1969 to 1972. He describes his experiences as having a significant impact on his future career. "Although I was teaching English, I became interested in public health issues as a result of working in the World Health Organization's smallpox eradication program." When he returned to the US, Wickizer eventually enrolled at the University of Michigan, where he received a MPH degree followed by a MA degree in applied economics and a PhD in health policy. He offers a summary of the insights gained from this training: "Economics is broadly concerned with how people and organizations make choices. Incentives influence these choices, whether this is at the level of the individual or at the level of the health care system."
The health care situation in Washington State occupies a large place in Wickizer's scholarship. He has conducted extensive research on workers' compensation programs, including an on-going project with the Washington State Department of Labor and Industry aimed at decreasing workplace-related disabilities. This project, which the state recently expanded, uses payment incentives and organizational support to encourage health care providers to adopt occupational health best practices. The goal is to decrease long-term disability by providing high quality and timely occupational health care. "People suffer a great deal of work-related disability from occupational injuries and illnesses. To the extent that health care services can reduce disability and improve functioning, then our work is worthwhile. We recently found that it was possible to reduce disability by as much as 7,000 days for every 1,000 workers who were treated through the pilot project. That's a significant gain," Wickizer concludes. Another of his recent research projects examined substance abuse treatments for adolescents in Washington State, a topic he hopes to examine further in the future.
Wickizer sees a synergy between research and teaching, stressing that each improves and informs the other. He fondly remembers how one student made the connection between coursework and the word beyond the classroom: "I had a student in one of my health economics classes who was also doing an internship out in the community. One day this student was in a meeting in which several managers from her internship site were trying to decide whether some services should be done in-house or contracted out. Finally, the managers at this meeting asked my student what she thought. She said to them, 'You're not thinking about the cost of these services in the right way: some of the costs you think are relevant really aren't.' As she reported it, there was a stunned silence, and then the all the managers in the meeting starting nodding their heads and agreeing with her," Wickizer laughs. He adds, "As a professor, that kind of experience—that kind of student learning—is intensely gratifying. It's great to see students apply classroom knowledge to real-life situations."
Wickizer became the director of the Extended MPH Degree Program in the summer of 2006. He hopes to continue to strengthen the program, stressing that "for 20 years we've been able to attract well-qualified, hard-working, and highly committed students to this premier public health program." In addition to each student's own competence, Wickizer attributes the successes of students in the program to high-quality training, relevant coursework, and support from faculty and staff. In his role as director, he is also exploring ways in which the program can support the ongoing learning needs of its graduates, whether through workshops, distance learning, online communities, or the development of local community networks.