Faculty Q&A: Dr. Rachel de Long
Dr. Rachel de Long is a Clinical Associate Professor in the Department of Health Policy, Management and Behavior at the School of Public Health.
How did you become interested in maternal and child health?
I would actually say that a desire to support families is what fundamentally drove my career path – not an interest in “health” per se. I grew up poor with a very dedicated single mom and an amazing series of support systems that spanned multiple states, neighborhoods, and schools, and I have always felt a responsibility to be part of the systems that support all families. Like many in public health, I started by focusing on helping individuals, and over time that widened to thinking at community and policy levels. I originally planned to become a rural pediatrician or family practitioner, and as an undergraduate at Cornell I discovered (and ultimately majored in) Rural Sociology alongside my pre-med courses, which really sparked a love for population-level thinking. Throughout undergraduate and medical school, I worked at Planned Parenthood clinics in Ithaca (NY), Chicago (IL), and Madison (WI). That was a formative experience that served as the foundation for many things: my approach to engaging with patients and colleagues, a solid focus on prevention and family-centered practice, and an understanding that medicine and health care are just a small part of health and well-being - both at the individual and community level.
How did you end up in public health field?
During medical school and my first year of family practice residency, I realized that while I loved engaging with patients and their families, I didn’t have a passion for clinical medicine or working in the health care delivery system, and I was really more interested in community and policy approaches. I came to UAlbany to complete my specialty training in preventive medicine and public health, earning my MPH through the former NYS Preventive Medicine Residency Program in 2003. As a public health student, I found my home in the New York State Department of Health Division of Family Health, and went on to work there in a progression of leadership roles for 16 years, culminating in my service as the state’s Maternal and Child Health (Title V) Director. Along the way, my own three children were born, which only deepened my connection to the “MCH” part of public health.
What are the pressing issues right now in maternal and child health in the U.S.?
MCH is a very broad and deep field of public health, so it’s challenging to identify just one or two priorities! I think that maternal and infant mortality are two of the most fundamental outcomes we look at in public health, both in U.S. and globally. We have seen dramatic improvements in both over the past century, but more recently improvements have slowed, and in the case of maternal mortality have gotten worse. Equally important, we have staggering racial disparities – a black baby in the U.S. is twice as likely to die as a white baby, and a black woman is four to five times more likely to die related to her pregnancy than a white woman. While these are “MCH” statistics, they really reflect determinants of health that underlie adverse health outcomes and disparities across the entire life course. I also see social and emotional health and well-being of children and families as another really important, cross-cutting topic in MCH right now. That really encompasses a big array of “issues”, from postpartum depression, to the lifelong impact of adverse childhood experiences and trauma, to rising rates of anxiety and suicide in teens and young adults. Ten years ago we might have said these were the domain of the mental health system, but now we recognize them as central to health and a big focus of our work in public health and MCH.
What are you currently working on?
Well, as I write this I am finishing up a revised schedule for my classes as we all transition to online teaching and learning, and I am getting ready to tackle my first audio recording for a slide presentation!
More generally, my main focus for the past few years has been helping to create and implement the Maternal and Child Health Program here at SPH with my colleague Dr. Christine Bozlak. This has been a wonderful experience, and this winter I was very fortunate to be able to officially make the move from my prior job at the Department of Health to SPH to make it my primary focus. As the MCH Program Co-Director, I am working on creating and teaching MCH-related courses, designing and launching our new graduate certificate in MCH, co-advising our Student Interest Group and Student Advisory Committee, planning lots of MCH-related professional development activities and events for students and faculty, and working closely with the state MCH Program at NYSDOH to help support their program planning. I also serve as the Director of the Fellowship in Applied Public Health Program, which is a specialized MPH track and training program for physicians who are transitioning from clinical practice to public health. This keeps me really busy, but I love all of it!
What was the last book you read for fun?
I’m a glutton for detective series and always have one going. I like series that are intelligent and well-written with realistically complex characters. Currently I’m immersed in the Jesse Stone series by Robert Parker (having finished his entire Spenser series last year and wondering how my life would ever be the same without it). I also recently finished Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress, which is the first of his books featuring Easy Rawlins, and is written more in the classic detective noir style. I’m definitely looking forward to reading more of that series, and thinking I’ll re-watch the movie version with Denzel Washington during this period of being homebound.
Do you have any advice for students who are interested in maternal and child health?
Please join our MCH community here at SPH! Students are the reason we are here and are essential to everything about the program. Take an MCH course, attend an MCH brown bag or other professional development event, and consider enrolling in the MCH graduate certificate. MCH is so broad – it’s not just about moms and babies (although of course they are very important). If your passion is adolescent health, reproductive and sexual justice, engaging and supporting fathers, systems of care for children with disabilities, or health disparities – MCH is also about all of these, and many other big areas of public health!
If I could make one specific recommendation to students, it’s to sign up for our Student & Alumni Interest Group. You’ll get a weekly email with updates on courses, special events, internship and job opportunities, and more. Email email@example.com to add your name to the list!