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Research Profile: Bridget Catlin Making a Difference One County at a Time

Today she co-directs the County Health Rankings and Roadmaps project at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH), but Bridget Catlin MHSA, PhD ’94, began doing epidemiology as a young teenager.


Her father, Robin Catlin, MBBS, was a family physician in Chelmsford, near London, England. And it was 13-year-old Bridget Catlin’s job to comb his medical records to identify children whose vaccinations were out of date.


At age 17, Catlin moved to the United States because her father became a professor and, later, chair of family medicine at the University of Massachusetts. She planned to return to England, but instead she stayed for college at Clark University in Massachusetts and graduate school at the University of Michigan, where she earned a master’s degree in hospital administration.


She worked in Washington, D.C., before moving to UW-Madison to earn a degree in industrial engineering and work at the Center for Health Systems Research and Analysis.


In 2005, Catlin joined the UW Population Health Institute, which had established the Wisconsin County Health Rankings two years earlier under the leadership of Patrick Remington, MD ’81, MPH, associate dean for public health and a professor in the Department of Population Health Sciences, and David Kindig, MD, PhD, professor emeritus in the Department of Population Health Sciences.


Bridget CatlinWith funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), Catlin helped expand the rankings nationally and publish the first report on all 3,143 U.S. counties in 2010. Assessments show how counties measure up within each state in terms of how healthy people are, how long they live, and how important factors affect their health.


Among the many things considered are rates of adult smoking and obesity, number of uninsured adults, rates of high school graduation and access to healthy food.


The RWJF recently announced it is renewing the program’s grant - expected to total $24 million over four years.


Each spring when the institute publishes a new report, Catlin and her colleagues find themselves at the center of a media frenzy that has them talking to reporters from the Wall Street Journal to weekly rural papers.


Were you surprised by the attention from the national rankings?


It blew us away, and the foundation had never seen anything that generated so much attention for public health. I think it shows that all politics are local, and all health is local, too. To produce a report that real people use is a very rewarding experience.


How has the program evolved?


We realized that we wanted to do more than just give data to communities because they need more than that to make a difference. Some critics had accused us of taking the position of “rank ’em and spank ’em,” but the rankings are a call to action. They help community leaders identify factors that make residents unhealthy and mobilize communities to develop solutions.


What has the program done to help improve the culture of health?


During the national rankings’ second year, we built an “action center.” Counties have access to a treasure trove of data and a set of guidance and tools through the County Rankings and Roadmaps web site. We also expanded the Wisconsin program - “What Works for Health” - nationally. Funded by the SMPH’s Wisconsin Partnership Program and now also RWJF, it provides evidence-based strategies. The easy part is looking at the data; the tough work is implementing changes. We are beginning to close the loop by evaluating what communities have done.


We’ve also hired coaches to walk community members through the process of building a “Culture of Health” and implementing strategies to help everyone lead healthier lives. The new RWJF grant will allow us to expand the coaches from four to 10. The new coaches will be regionally based, as it helps if they understand the local culture. We’re also expanding the RWJF Culture of Health Prize, so next year, up to 10 communities will be eligible to win based on the health improvements they’ve made.


What do you learn in communities?


Participants tell us that preparing for our prize site visit was helpful because they had to decide what parts of their community to highlight. We learn a lot at those visits. For instance, if community leaders introduce themselves to each other, it shows that they haven’t been working together.


Do the rankings show relationships between medicine and public health?


The rankings show that many factors influence health and that neither medicine nor public health alone can improve community health. Not only do medicine and public health need to work together, but they also must work with businesses, educators, planners, philanthropists and many others.


Do you have a favorite project?


I am impressed with what Mason County, Washington, has done. The public health people were doing good work, but they had defined their role narrowly. They were surprised to see education in their health rankings. Even though they were doing a good job graduating children from high school, a low percentage went on to college. The community started a college readiness program for fourth graders, and it will be a while before we learn whether it is helping.


Describe the media circus.


I never thought I’d say, “I have a buddy at the New York Times,” but I do. I also had a great experience with the Wall Street Journal. After a long interview, the reporter used only the quote “Suburbs rule.” I was horrified, but she told me, “Oh no, Bridget. That type of quote makes the story real for people.” That made sense, so I stopped beating myself up.


For years, my kids had no idea what I did. But that changed when I helped create a website and appeared in USA Today. My daughter is in the SMPH master’s program in epidemiology, and my son is completing a business degree and thinking about a career in health administration. It’s gratifying that they see the importance of the work that my co-director, Julie Willems Van Dijk, RN, PhD, and I, along with our great team at the UW Population Health Institute, are doing to build a culture of health, county by county.


Interview by Susan Smith

This article appears in the summer 2014 issue of Quarterly.

Date Published: 09/04/2014

News tag(s):  quarterlyresearchpublic health

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Research Profile: Bridget Catlin Making a Difference One County at a Time

Last updated: 09/15/2014
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