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Game Changer

New Peter O'Donnell Jr. School of Public Health will optimize health so communities can flourish

Biomedical advances have transformed how we treat and prevent disease in patients. Yet many people don’t have access to these lifesaving treatments, and the prevalence of chronic conditions including diabetes, obesity, and heart disease remains high. It’s a stark reminder of the urgent need to address wide-scale health problems on a population level before they occur.

Through the new Peter O’Donnell Jr. School of Public Health, UT Southwestern Medical Center aims to both advance public health broadly by creating a research-intensive school dedicated to scientific advances that address population health challenges and provide evidence-based input for policymakers navigating chronic and emerging public health crises. Further, the institution will help address the need for an expanded expert public health workforce by leveraging the research strengths and experience of its three existing schools.

“Peter and Edith O’Donnell cared deeply about UT Southwestern and making a difference in the greater Dallas community.”

This is exemplified by a joint project between Parkland Health and UT Southwestern that began with the goal to increase the rate of voluntary HPV vaccination of eligible patients in order to reduce the incidence of precancers and cancers linked to HPV, the most common of which are cervical and oropharyngeal cancers. As a result of the research and quality improvement collaboration that began in 2009, Parkland’s voluntary HPV vaccination rate increased over the next seven years to 61.4%, showing vast improvement since the start of the joint collaboration.

This is but one example of the important work that will be advanced through UT Southwestern’s new O’Donnell School of Public Health, demonstrating the Medical Center’s commitment to providing the highest levels of science-based guidance to enhance the health and well-being of our community. The new school will also benefit from alignment with the Medical Center’s own growing Health System and an extensive network of collaborative partnerships, including Parkland, Children’s Health, and Dallas Veterans Affairs Medical Center, as well as community organizations and public health departments.

Portrait of Peter and Edith O'Donnell
Peter and Edith O'Donnell

A capstone gift for a healthier North Texas

The O’Donnell Foundation’s transformational $100 million gift to support and name the O’Donnell School of Public Health is the largest gift to a school of public health at a public university in the U.S. The gift provides both immediate and long-term support for the school’s research and educational programs, faculty, and students.

The O’Donnell Foundation was established by visionary philanthropists Peter O’Donnell Jr., who died last year, and his late wife, Edith.

“Peter and Edith O’Donnell cared deeply about UT Southwestern and making a difference in the greater Dallas community,” said William T. Solomon, President and CEO of the O’Donnell Foundation. “These two passions are inextricably linked in the Peter O’Donnell Jr. School of Public Health. We are proud to share a gift that honors the O’Donnells’ immeasurable legacy and makes a lasting impact on UT Southwestern and the communities of North Texas.”

Supporting faculty and students

Realizing this opportunity to drive public health solutions for the state and nation, donors are stepping forward with strategic and significant philanthropic investments to create opportunities for faculty and students.

Renowned Dallas entrepreneur and philanthropist Lyda Hill established the Lyda Hill Deanship of the O’Donnell School of Public Health with a $5 million gift that supports the recruitment of the school’s inaugural Dean. Her gift emboldens ongoing recruitment efforts for the school’s first leader and continues her long-standing support of UT Southwestern, which most notably included a 2015 gift to name the Lyda Hill Department of Bioinformatics.

Portrait of Lyda Hill
Lyda Hill

“Health promotion and disease prevention are key to building strong and healthy communities,” said Miss Hill, founder of Lyda Hill Philanthropies. “By stepping forward to create the state’s newest school of public health, UT Southwestern is addressing a critical need for North Texas and the entire state.”

Nationally recognized epidemiologist and UTSW alumnus Richard E. Hoffman, M.D., M.P.H., an Adjunct Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health, pledged $1.5 million to Southwestern Medical Foundation to establish the Richard E. Hoffman, M.D., M.P.H. Scholarship Fund for Public Health to provide student scholarships at UT Southwestern. Although the O’Donnell School of Public Health won’t begin classes for another 18 months, Dr. Hoffman understood that making a gift now would help UTSW “attract the best students.” In 2012, a gift from his family to Southwestern Medical Foundation established The Hoffman Family Center for Genetics and Epidemiology at UTSW.

Portrait of Richard E. Hoffman
Richard E. Hoffman, M.D., M.P.H.

“I wanted to fund students because we want students who are very diverse to be the leaders of public health in the future,” said Dr. Hoffman, who serves on Southwestern Medical Foundation’s Board of Trustees. “Rather than addressing a gift toward a particular disease, I wanted to help students just as I had been helped when I was starting my career. I have confidence that the Medical Center can produce outstanding, quality graduates who go on to serve in their communities.”

The O’Donnell School of Public Health is UTSW’s fourth school and will welcome the first class of Master of Public Health students in the fall of 2023, followed by Ph.D. students in the fall of 2024. Training the next generation of public health professionals will alleviate the severe shortage of workers in Texas, which lags far behind other populous U.S. states.

“There has never been a moment in our lifetimes when the need to advance public health has been more critical,” said UT Southwestern President Daniel K. Podolsky, M.D. “We are grateful for the generosity of our longtime friends, Lyda Hill and Dr. Richard Hoffman, who share our vision to advance public health through research and an expanded public health workforce by investing in our faculty and students.”

In addition to an ongoing, national search for the O’Donnell School of Public Health’s inaugural dean, recruitment efforts are also underway to bring the expertise of leading public health researchers and clinicians to UT Southwestern. The school’s faculty will also include members of UT Southwestern’s Department of Population and Data Sciences as well as the institution’s other three schools.

The O’Donnell Foundation’s transformational $100 million gift to support and name the O’Donnell School of Public Health is the largest gift to a school of public health at a public university in the U.S.

“The UT Southwestern School of Public Health will provide unique academic and research opportunities within a culturally rich environment that has Dallas ranked No. 4 in diversity among U.S. cities,” said Celette Sugg Skinner, Ph.D., Interim Dean of the O’Donnell School of Public Health and Chair of the Department of Population and Data Sciences at UT Southwestern. “Together we will endeavor to meet the public health challenges of our time with rigor, innovation, integrity, and collaboration to serve the communities of North Texas and the world.”

Pursuing community-driven health & equity

The O’Donnell School of Public Health will be dedicated to promoting health equity for historically excluded populations. UTSW’s Population and Data Sciences Department conducts data collection and analysis to discover health trends within certain segments of the population so that preventive treatment can be offered to those with greater risks of developing chronic conditions. This leads to improvements in health equity with better health outcomes for patients and cost savings for the medical system.

Dr. Bowen is a Dedman Family Scholar in Clinical Care.

Dr. Podolsky holds the Philip O’Bryan Montgomery, Jr., M.D. Distinguished Presidential Chair in Academic Administration, and the Doris and Bryan Wildenthal Distinguished Chair in Medical Science.

Dr. Skinner holds the Parkland Community Medicine Professorship.

Culinary Medicine

Portrait of Jaclyn Albin, M.D.
Jaclyn Albin, M.D.

Jaclyn Albin, M.D., UT Southwestern Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Internal Medicine, and Michael Bowen, M.D., UT Southwestern Assistant Professor in Internal Medicine, Pediatrics, and Data and Population Sciences, are studying the effectiveness of culinary medicine to improve diabetes outcomes in patients. Through a partnership with nonprofit food assistance provider Crossroads Community Services, participants living in one of Dallas County’s most impoverished areas receive meal kits to address food insecurity with an intended outcome of lowering blood glucose levels after six months.

Portrait of Michael Bowen, M.D.
Michael Bowen, M.D.

Mediterranean eating

As part of a healthy eating lifestyle, a Mediterranean diet may decrease your risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s.

To try it out, eat more plant-based foods, more fish, and more healthy sources of fat, while moderating meat consumption. Staple foods include:

  • Avocado
  • Fish
  • Fruits
  • Legumes, such as beans or hummus
  • Nuts
  • Olive oil
  • Vegetables
  • Whole grains that are minimally processed

Life Expectancy

A lack of equity in access to health care has led to significant disparities in medical outcomes. In Dallas alone, there is a nearly 30-year difference in the life expectancy of males in some zip codes that are just a few miles apart.

Map shows average male life expectancy of 63.6 years for zip code 75204 and 90.1 years for zip code 75215
Average male life expectancy by zip code in Dallas County

Food Insecurity

Food insecurity is a significant risk factor for poor public health outcomes. In 2018, the USDA noted 11.1% of U.S. households reported inconsistent access to adequate food. Often, people delay filling prescriptions or visiting the doctor to feed their families, compounding untreated health conditions.

“The food banking system is predicated on the assumption that people need food pantries for emergencies only,” said Sandi Pruitt, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Population and Data Sciences at UT Southwestern. “But this is a common misconception, as many families and individuals experience food insecurity for months or years at a time, and it’s more of a chronic condition.

UT Southwestern medical students serve breakfast tacos to community residents in the Dolphin Heights neighborhood of Dallas.
UT Southwestern medical students share recipes and nutrition facts while serving breakfast tacos to community residents at a health fair in the Dolphin Heights neighborhood of Dallas.

Looking for more effective solutions, UT Southwestern evaluated an innovative model used at Crossroads Community Services, a food pantry and distribution system located in southern Dallas County. The organization uses evidence-based approaches to empower people to make dietary changes that improve health and partners with smaller community organizations to distribute food at locations such as public housing facilities, churches, and community centers.“Crossroads has made food more accessible to clients and has also encouraged clients to come back regularly,” Dr. Pruitt said. “We hope that this can be a policy change in food distribution settings across the U.S.”