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Pamela Kohler: Eliminating Disparities Together—Abroad and at Home

Pamela Kohler is a faculty facilitator at the 2015 Northwest Public Health Leadership Institute. She talks about her passion for eliminating health disparities and transforming the life course of vulnerable populations.

Pamela Kohler is a faculty facilitator at the 2015 Northwest Public Health Leadership Institute. She talks about her passion for eliminating health disparities and transforming the life course of vulnerable populations.

July 14, 2015

Pamela Kohler, PhD, MPH, RN, developed an early passion for public health and nursing as a Peace Corps volunteer in an AIDS hospice. With experience spanning regions from Jamaica to Kenya, she is excited to connect her knowledge of global health to local issues while working with emerging public health leaders at this year's Leadership Institute.

Explain a bit about the work you do at the University of Washington. What do you enjoy most?
I'm an Assistant Professor in the Department of Global Health and in the School of Nursing Department of Psychosocial and Community Health. I teach an undergraduate course in the School of Nursing, but most of my time is spent on HIV research and implementation science in Eastern and Southern Africa. I also lead a new field epidemiology training program in Tanzania through the International Training and Education Center for Health (I-TECH). I most enjoy working with nurses and other health care providers in low-resource settings to identify ways to improve HIV care for those most vulnerable. Seeing the nurses' and providers' passion and enthusiasm is truly inspiring and keeps me motivated.

Why are you excited about joining the Northwest Public Health Leadership Institute this year as a faculty facilitator and as a member of the Advisory Committee?
Recognizing the importance of being aware of the disparities and challenges in our own backyards, I am really excited to learn more about the domestic public health landscape. The leaders we work with at this institute are at the forefront of public health in our region. It's striking to me how so many domestic public health issues are similar to those in global health. Some of the interventions we apply in global health settings may turn out to be very relevant for solving domestic problems or improving maternal and child health locally. Some of the skillsets in working with communities to access and improve health resources are similar, whether one is in Malawi or Walla Walla.

This year's Leadership Institute has a particular focus on maternal and child health (MCH) and the life course perspective. What draws you to these topics and to public health leadership development?
I am currently an Assistant Director at the UW Global Center for Integrated Health of Women, Adolescents, and Children (Global WACh). We emphasize the life course and the life cycle, with a particular focus on how the health of these three populations is tightly linked or integrated. By intervening with mothers, we can promote infant survival; by providing services to children and adolescents, we ensure they lead healthy lives into adulthood.

Personally, my doctoral research was on issues in maternal child health—specifically in uptake of prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV (PMTCT) services in rural Kenya. I'm focusing now on ways to improve adolescent HIV testing and care, with the hope of promoting retention in care and adherence to medication. Adolescents are currently the only age group that has worsening HIV mortality. Services are not well tailored to their needs, and they are at such a vulnerable time point in their lives. Our new program will use a standardized patient actor training program to improve communication and empathy skills of health providers in working with HIV-infected adolescents in Kenya.

When did you know you wanted to go into public health? What informed your specific interests?
I first developed my interest in public health by serving as a Peace Corps volunteer at an AIDS hospice in Kingston, Jamaica in the late 1990s. Except for a few instances in which we could get the HIV drug AZT for the children, we had no access to antiretroviral medications. That experience really compelled me to become a nurse. After working as an emergency room nurse in Baltimore for several years, I saw how clearly each individual emergency was really a reflection of a greater public health problem.

What insights have you gained from your work in global health that are helpful for Leadership Institute scholars working at the community, regional, or state level?
First—as I'm sure this group knows—is that partnership is the key to success. The UW Kenya Research and Training Center partnership, which has grown over the course of 25 years, is a really inspiring group I was privileged to work with. The US students co-trained alongside the Kenyan students, and now—years later—we all collaborate on high-impact research and training programs. Each project leads to new ideas and new endeavors.

The second is: Be willing to herd cats. I think that every leadership role I've held, and any subsequent success I've experienced, has arisen from my willingness to do the leg work to bring people together.

Public health work is challenging. How do you stay motivated? What do you draw on for inspiration?
I stay motivated by making sure I get out in the field on a regular basis. It's too easy to stay behind your computer all the time. The travel is exhausting, but seeing the real-world impact is so worthwhile.

Tell us a little bit about your life outside of work.
I grew up in the Seattle area, and my family is all still close by in the region. My parents are enjoying their retirement in Keyport, Washington, and my sister works for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I enjoy playing tennis, whenever I can find the time. My partner, Justin, and I are proud parents of a very loud cat named Norman.

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