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School Forms New Department of Behavior and Health

New Department of Behavior and Health will study behaviors associated with half of all deaths in U.S.

In May, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health announced it is establishing a new department to study human behavior and health. The new department will be dedicated to a multi-disciplinary approach to identify why people behave the way they do and how to most effectively change these behaviors to dramatically improve health. It will develop new ways to prevent behaviors responsible for the leading causes of illness and premature death in the United States and other parts of the world. The School will create its new Department of Behavior and Health with a $20 million gift from a donor who does not wish to be identified.

“Smoking, sedentary lifestyle and diet-caused obesity, avoidable injuries, substance abuse, and risky sexual behavior are the root causes of more than half of all deaths and hospitalizations in the United States,” explained Scott Zeger, PhD, who chaired a School committee that recommended the creation of the new department. Dr. Zeger, professor and chair of Biostatistics, stressed, “When we target ways to prevent infectious disease, we study the vectors that spread the illness and develop vaccines for prevention and medications for treatment. When the target is disease and death-causing behaviors, the tools and methods are less developed, which is what we will research and teach in this new department.”

The Department of Behavior and Health will take new approaches to behavioral intervention programs by focusing on the social context of change. Research and development of new interventions will involve individual and systems changes that promote healthier lifestyles through education, regulation, legislation, and social policies.

“We now understand that interventions that target the individual alone are inadequate,” said Alfred Sommer, MD, MHS ’73, dean of the School. “For example, by themselves education programs had only a limited impact on smoking, but when combined with high taxes on cigarettes and regulations restricting smoking in public buildings, smoking was dramatically reduced in the United States,” explained Dean Sommer.

The new department will draw upon the School’s strengths in the social and behavioral sciences, communications, marketing, and other core public health tools to establish a multidisciplinary research program of health-related behaviors and to develop interventions to promote health and prevent disease. The department will create a PhD degree program to train new leaders in the field.

“Many of today’s public health risks can be vastly reduced by changes in behavior. With the creation of the Department of Behavior and Health, we are in a unique position to lead this critical field of research and develop new interventions to improve health around the world,” said Dean Sommer.

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