Burke’s work to improve public health won’t end when he steps down as dean


Dr. Donald Burke used his final lecture as dean of the Graduate School of Public Health as a call to action for the Pitt community to help combat public health epidemics.

Burke will step down from his position as dean on July 1, after 13 years — the longest tenure of any dean for the Graduate School of Public Health. He will remain at the GSPH in the fall as a distinguished university professor of health science and policy in the Department of Epidemiology.

He’ll also serve as president and CEO of a new venture, Epistemix, Inc., a company that uses FRED technology, or framework for reconstruction epidemiological dynamics, to help visualize complex data related to public health into easily digestible presentations. The FRED modeling system was developed at the GSPH.

Burke initially decided to step down as dean two years ago, but Pitt administration asked him to stay on longer, said Allison Hydzik, a UPMC spokeswoman.

Everette James., director of the University of Pittsburgh Health Policy Institute, will step in as interim dean, Hydzik said. Eleanor Feingold, professor and interim chair of Pitt Public Health’s Department of Human Genetics, will become as the school’s executive associate dean.

The search and appointment for a new dean will wait until after a new senior vice chancellor for Pitt’s Schools of the Health Sciences is selected to replace Dr. Arthur Levine.

Burke covers history and future in final lecture

Burke delivered his lecture June 6 to a nearly full auditorium at the GSPH building. The lecture, titled “Health care or health? An existential question,” covered a variety of topics from the founding of the Graduate School of Public health to the origins of the term “health care.”

Dean Donald BurkeCiting data from the GSPH’s Mortality Information and Research Statistics system, or MOIRA, Burke examined the state of public health in Allegheny County and the U.S. He found that U.S. mortality rates, when compared to other developed nations, have been improving — but the improvement is among the slowest.

Allegheny County, when compared to counties of similar size, has a similar pattern. Its mortality rates are near the bottom, and it’s still “slipping,” he said.

“There are many factors to this,” Burke said. “And remember that we’re getting better, but our ranking is getting worse. I don’t think that’s a cause for celebration. Now what that means is that for some reason, either we are disadvantaged and therefore falling behind, but remember, all these other counties that were at the high end were also disadvantaged to start, and they’re getting better faster than we are.”

Some of the major causes of death in the county, he said, include accidental poisoning and cardiovascular diseases.

He used these figures to pose a question to the audience, citing a researcher who once defined public health as “written as a record of successive redefining of the unacceptable.”

“Is this one of those times to redefine the situation as unacceptable?” Burke asked the audience.

“Why did I choose this topic? This is an existential question for Pitt Public Health. If health in our region as measured by mortality rates is unacceptable, do we have a responsibility to do something about it?” he said.

His hourlong lecture also touched on the origins of the GSPH and the difference between “public health” and “health care” as both terminology and practices.

He also aired some of his frustrations with politics, some major pharmaceutical corporations and the opioid epidemic. After stepping down, he plans to spend more time on projects designed to battle the opioid epidemic, Hydzik said.

“I am spending my professional energies trying to undo the efforts of corporations who are doing everything they can to exploit and profit from human appetites and desires, in disregard of the human costs,” Burke said. “Case in point — the opioid epidemic. As dean of Public Health, I find this perverse and frustrating.”

These frustrating actions, which he attributed to some large corporations and inaction among politicians, have created a “power imbalance that needs to be addressed.”

“I’m just a small-town boy from east Ohio,” Burke said. “I’m not a flame thrower, I’m not a socialist or any of those things. But I have to say, when I spend my professional time trying to work on issues like this ... I think we need to try a little harder.”

‘Don was the kind of dean I wanted to work for’

Burke’s colleagues praised him for his leadership and work with databases, where he helped digitize reportable diseases and other U.S. government statistics and made more publicly accessible.

One of these notable databases is Project Tycho, which digitized all weekly surveillance reports for reportable diseases in the United States dating back more than 125 years, according to UPMC.

Dr. Mark Roberts, professor and chair of the GSPH’s Department of Health Policy and Management, has worked with Burke since 2010. He said Burke’s reputation was one of the reasons he moved from the School of Medicine to the GSPH.

“I felt that Don was the kind of dean I wanted to work for,” Roberts said. “He was interested in the same kind of science that I am. He’s a mathematical modeler, I’m a mathematical modeler. And, you know, quite honestly, it was going to be great to have a dean who not only understands what I do, but also supports and thinks that kind of solution to health care problems is appropriate.”

Burke, he said, is very passionate about public health and what the GSPH should do to affect the lives of the community, regardless of health insurance policies.

“And Don has always said, ‘the population we need to care about is the population in which we live.’ The population of Allegheny County, the population Western Pennsylvania, the population of the United States,” Roberts said. “It’s everybody, not just the people whom I happen to insure, or the people in my ICU, or the people in my practice — that population health should really mean improving the health of the entire population.”

Dr. Charles Rinaldo, a professor and chair of Pitt Public Health’s Department of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology, said Burke is the best dean he’s ever worked with.

“His legacy is huge,” Rinaldo said. “You know, I go back to the late ‘70s when I first started, and he is by far the best I’ve seen. The other (deans) were good, but he is by far the best.”

Rinaldo praised Burke for his leadership and interest in history. But one of the most impressive things about Burke, Rinaldo said, was his ability to see the big picture surrounding public health.

“I was amazed at how he could understand and capture the main ingredient, the main aspects of the broad spectrum of public health, far beyond infectious diseases,” Rinaldo said.

Burke said he was motivated to stay as dean for this long because he truly enjoyed working with the faculty of the school, and their drive to try and keep people healthy.

He added that it’s an important time for the University and the region, a time for changes to be made on how public health is addressed.

“And if we do this right, we could actually change, bend these curves in the right direction,” Burke said.

Donovan Harrell is a reporter for the University Times. Reach him at dharrell@pitt.edu or 412-383-9905.