Introducing the Inaugural Director of the Institute for Social and Health Equity: A Q&A with Professor Paul Morgan

Paul Morgan stands at a table addressing a room of students gathered for a lunch meeting. Morgan is smiling, wearing a tan blazer and white button up shirt.
Paul Morgan addresses students gathered at UAlbany for the 2023 SPRINTER meeting, an annual collaborative event hosted by the Center for the Elimination of Minority Health Disparities, which is housed within ISHE. (Photo by Brian Busher)

By Erin Frick 

ALBANY, N.Y. (Feb. 6, 2024) — Empire Innovation Professor Paul Morgan joined the University at Albany faculty in May 2023 to lead the Institute for Social and Health Equity (ISHE) as its inaugural director. Morgan also holds the position of Social and Health Equity Endowed Professor in the Department of Health Policy, Management and Behavior at the School of Public Health.

Morgan’s current research explores disparities in disability identification and treatment during childhood for a range of conditions including ADHD, learning disabilities, speech language impairments and autism. Morgan also studies mental and behavioral health among schoolchildren, including bullying and victimization.

As the Director of the Institute for Social and Health Equity, Morgan is working to facilitate interdisciplinary research collaborations across the UAlbany campus and forge partnerships within academia and the private sector to work together to address longstanding social and health equity issues that exist in the Capital Region and beyond. ISHE-affiliated research interest groups at UAlbany are already engaged in studying topics such as healthy aging, maternal and child health disparities and environmental health disparities.

All are invited to attend the Institute for Social and Health Equity launch celebration happening on Feb. 14 at 1 p.m. in the ETEC Atrium. See here for details.

Here, Morgan shares insights on the importance of studying health disparities, his path to this research area and what drew him to UAlbany.

What does the term ‘health disparity’ mean, and how do health disparities affect different populations?

According to the Institute of Medicine, a health disparity refers to a difference in health or healthcare that exists between groups of people that is not explained by differences in clinical need or patience preference. I see health disparities occurring regularly. For example, my colleague and I recently reported that children who are Black, particularly those who are boys, girls or emergent bilinguals, are less likely to be diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Underdiagnosis leads to undertreatment. We also found that girls and emergent bilinguals who are diagnosed with ADHD are less likely to be using medication. We observed these health disparities in diagnosis and treatment in analyses accounting for directly assessed symptomatology as well as impairment, and so among observationally similar children. CBS News, the San Francisco Chronicle and Black Enterprise have reported on our findings.

These disparities in diagnosis and treatment are important because ADHD is a chronic condition that responds well to supports and services provided through therapy or medication. The lack of appropriate diagnosis and treatment for ADHD and other disability conditions is thought to be exacerbating educational and societal disparities including in-school suspension, incarceration and unemployment. Thus, health disparities may be resulting in other types of inequities across the life course including those that are disproportionately experienced by members of historically marginalized communities. 

What inspired you to conduct research focused on childhood health disparities?

I began working with children and youth with behavioral and learning disabilities in schools as well as in residential settings. I saw children who were experiencing both learning and behavioral disabilities, and how these conditions were making their lives more challenging, including in school. Since then, I have been working to better understand through empirical studies how our society might better help children with learning and behavioral disabilities, particularly during elementary school, when screening and intervention efforts might be most effective. I also saw firsthand how some groups of children were less likely to access services or supports for these conditions based on their race, ethnicity or language use.

Social and health inequities often exist in insidious forms. Can you provide an example of a health inequity that should be getting more attention?

I view the heavy use by some teenagers of social media as a public health issue that may be contributing to serious mental health difficulties, particularly as experienced by girls. I am glad the issue is starting to receive more attention including by policymakers. I would like to see more empirical research and evidence-based public policy that ensures children’s use of social media during childhood is not displacing beneficial activities including physical activity, regular sleep and spending social time with friends. We have some recent work finding that heavy use of social media begins by elementary school. Heavy use is especially likely to be experienced by some populations of children.

What are you most excited about in your new role as director of the Institute for Social and Health Equity?

I was drawn to UAlbany by the exciting, interdisciplinary work being done here to advance social and health equity. The faculty, staff and students and the diverse campus community are wonderful. This is such a great time to be a Great Dane. I could not be happier to see the investments being made by the University in the Institute for Social and Health Equity as a new university-wide research hub for interdisciplinary research. I am very much looking forward to working with faculty to support their work, particularly by helping these faculty advance their social and health equity research in ways that are supported by federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences.

Tell us about something you do for fun, when not working?

I have been training in Brazilian jiujitsu for about 17 years. It is a grappling art, like wrestling, but one that emphasizes submissions like joint locks while on the ground. I train at a locally owned gym named Clever Combat. It is a wonderful place. Jiujitsu is a great equalizer — it doesn’t matter who you are or what your title is on the mat. What matters is that you work together to help each other get better. It is also a great way to exercise and make new friends. I learn something new every time I train.

Institute for Social and Health Equity Launch Event

All are invited to join the Institute for Social and Health Equity for its public launch event on Feb. 14 at 1 p.m. in the ETEC Atrium. The celebration will include lunch, a presentation by featured speaker Dr. Adam Gamoran and a catered reception to follow. Details and registration can be found at this link. Contact Debbie Hazapis to learn more.