HealthCorps Interview with Dr. Phil Blanc
Dr. Phil Blanc is a new addition to the HealthCorps team, recently joining the organization as its Vice President of Research & Health Science Communication. An ER-trained physician, with a Master in Public Health degree, Dr. Blanc recently shared some thoughts on his medical training focus, his professional pursuits and passions, his research and what attracted him to HealthCorps.
Q: Can you share some highlights from your medical school and residency training.
A: Growing up, I knew I wanted to give back to society in some way. Medicine was promising as a way of doing this, since I could help people in a very direct way. I obtained a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree in Biological Sciences and Religion at Rutgers University, and then pursued my medical degree (M.D.) at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey. As a medical student, I had the opportunity to lead my peers in a number of initiatives as President of the Student Government Association (SGA), in addition to serving as Co-Director of the school’s service learning organization, Urban Health Initiative (UHI), where medical student volunteers mentored and taught at-risk local youths interested in pursuing health-related careers. While in medical school, I also began learning how I could have a meaningful impact at the population level through public health. My interest in public health led me to pursue opportunities to learn more about health disparities and addressing the needs of vulnerable populations. I served as an intern with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for Health Disparities Solutions, as a research assistant with the Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), and as a student at the Harvard School of Public Health, where I earned a Master of Public Health (M.P.H.) degree, and even had the honor of being selected to deliver the Student Speech at commencement.
Q: You also worked with some specific populations that inspired some of your research and medical training choices.
A: Yes. My awareness of the needs of some of our most vulnerable populations was heightened through experiences working firsthand in New York City emergency departments as an Emergency Medicine resident at the Mount Sinai Medical Center. My personal awareness of such needs was also expanded through research that I conducted, aimed at reducing the burden of asthma in children living in East Harlem—where rates for asthma-related pediatric ER visits are among the highest in the city—as a Public Health/ Preventive Medicine resident at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYC DOHMH).
Q: You also became interested in the power of health communication as a doctor.
A: Yes, over time, my interest in health communication and its potential to reach the masses led me to internship opportunities at media outlets, including Discovery Communications, Black Entertainment Television (BET), and Philadelphia’s 6ABC Action News. After trying my hand at learning television production techniques behind the camera, I developed skills to become an on-camera medical expert, and landed my first major television appearance on The Dr. Oz Show, engaging viewers with tips to avoid injuries at home with inexpensive items from none other than… the dollar store! The response has been remarkable and indicates the power and reach of mass media to impact millions of viewers’ lives.
Q: What led to your interest in HealthCorps, and specifically why did you decide to join the organization?
A: My time spent with the Department of Health made me recognize that certain communities struggle disproportionately with particular conditions. Here in New York City, the DOHMH’s District Public Health Offices (DPHOs) grapple specifically with childhood obesity in the Brooklyn community, teen pregnancy in the Bronx, and childhood asthma in East Harlem. I worked with the professional team in East Harlem, and it became evident that there might be a link between asthma and obesity. The concern was that if kids with asthma generally don’t get regular physical activity, they may carry an increased risk for weight issues. In the public health sector, recognizing these connections and links (like obesity and asthma), allow the health community to identify health risks that go beyond the mandated health focus. In this case, I recognized the possible obesity link to a primary condition, asthma, and it reinforced my interest in the causes of obesity and the role that lifestyle choices play in obesity.
Taking note of HealthCorps’ focus on teen health and wellness, and specific education and interventions that aim to intercept teen obesity while improving physical health and mental resiliency, cemented my interest in joining the organization and specifically participating in expanding the role, focus and management of the research department.
Q: Describe your new role as Vice President of Research & Health Science.
A: Communication and please share some specific short term and long-term goals.
My new role encompasses three main objectives: 1. Building towards the self-sustainability of our department, such that it is able to function independent of HealthCorps’ overall operating budget; 2. Ensuring that our research and evaluation efforts are high-quality, such that we can feel confident that we are actually measuring what we have set out to measure (maintaining our studies’ internal validity). In turn, having valid data will help certify that whenever we speak about HealthCorps’ success, we are speaking from a place of evidence-based truth; and 3. Communicating to various audiences—including those tuning in to the Dr. Oz Show—the impact HealthCorps has on the lives of our students. Together, the goal is that self-sustainability will increase our ability to explore more advanced study designs which, in turn, can tell us more about the effect of our students even after they’ve completed high school (e.g., When we follow them through a longitudinal study, do we find that HealthCorps alumni maintain healthy lifestyles even in college?). Having more compelling information about HealthCorps’ long-term effect on our students could then lead to greater visibility, especially to funders, leading to—you guessed it—increased sustainability, thus exemplifying the interconnectedness of each of the aforementioned goals.
Q: Are there any plans for specific research projects and what is the impact that the research department can have on the future of HealthCorps?
A:Plans for specific research projects include continuing an assessment of a toolkit that is being developed, in part, with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine that is meant to aid coordinators in engaging their school community to promote healthy behaviors. We also are in the thick of preparing to train coordinators regarding their role in collecting data about our program over the course of the upcoming school year. Our hope is that coordinators will embrace their role in program evaluation less as a chore, and more as a means that we may be able to sustain the organization, especially if we yield results that are substantial in the eyes of potential funders. By generating useful information about HealthCorps’ impact across the country, our department plays an integral role in leveraging our organization’s current hard work into future success and sustainability.
Q: Do you think we are making strides with obesity rates in the U.S. and specifically within the child and teen population?
A:I am concerned that the incidence of obesity may be moving at a quicker clip than any gains we may be making in this area. My sense that we are not where we should be is likely informed by what I see around my neighborhood in the Bronx. In many neighborhoods like mine, it would be an uphill battle for a child or teen to make healthy choices, especially when they are surrounded by the temptations of fast food and corner stores where finding something healthful to eat may be very difficult to find. Hopefully strides made by our City, such as the DOHMH’s Shop Healthy Initiative can help address some of the dietary/nutritional needs that persist in these food deserts.
Q: Do you view Dr. Oz and his wife Lisa as visionaries?
A: As I see it, a visionary recognizes opportunities for growth, especially the need at times to rethink, retool, and redirect when the need arises. Thinking about the future of our organization’s sustainability and addressing this through our fairly recent offering HealthCorps University (HCU) exemplifies this. HCU signifies that we are not only interested in how schools and their students do for the time being—we also genuinely want to provide them the requisite tools so that future classes of students may also benefit from HealthCorps’ unique approach.
Q: When it comes to time spent outside of work, what do you like to do?
A:Outside of the office, I enjoy fencing in Chelsea, playing bass guitar for a church youth group in the West Village, and spending time with my wife, Ursula, at home in the Bronx.
My interest in fencing was inspired by a health screening I had several years ago, which suggested that I needed to take a serious look at my own personal lack of exercise. As a doctor I was dispensing “move more advice” to others, but not really following my own prescription. A trial run of fencing classes, thanks to Groupon, exposed me to a physical activity that was fun, challenging and a pretty good workout to boot! I can now say that I’m doing a better job of talking the talk and walking the walk!
See Dr. Blanc in action on Dr. Oz.