Emily Williams is working to improve population health in the Greater Detroit area. With a focus on the social determinants of health, she is addressing food insecurity, housing, transportation, and employment needs.
January 6, 2020
Sirens broke the silence of the night as firetrucks raced to the scene of a house fire. Flames engulfed the home as neighbors gathered nearby, screaming that the residents were still inside.
The scenario above is similar to a case study presented in an MSU undergraduate course in which Emily Williams, Spartan in Public Health, was enrolled. She reflects on her undergraduate experience at Michigan State and how taking an epidemiology course completely changed her perspective—and her career path.
Always an avid volunteer, Williams wanted a career where she could serve the community and positively impact a large number of lives. “Throughout my undergraduate years, I was very focused on the clinical aspect of health care,” she said.
Then, in the epidemiology case study, she and her classmates learned that many people had perished in a house fire, primarily because of a lack of awareness about fire safety. Did they have working smoke detectors? Did they have an escape plan? Did they realize they may have less than two minutes to escape?
Every 24 seconds in the United States, a fire department responds to a fire; and every 154 minutes, one civilian fire-related death occurs, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Regional factors, including poverty, education, and demographics, affect fire issues, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, which collects data from a variety of sources. This data is then used to increase awareness and target public education programs.
“You can educate people, but they have to be alert and aware. How do you get people to be alert and aware, and to take action?” said Williams.
She began taking courses for her master’s degree in public health while working full time as a care coordinator for a Medicare/Medicaid health plan provider. After earning her master’s degree from MSU in December 2013, she worked first as a health care analyst and then moved into account management and operations.
“The field is incredibly bright for those with a passion for public health. We need individuals who are curious, innovative, and willing to disrupt cycles to create positive change. Whether you want to work in the public sector, private corporations, community-based organizations, health insurance companies, or as consultants, be encouraged that there are many opportunities awaiting you,” Williams said.
“Through one program I managed, we were able to help 200 medically frail individuals by providing personal caregivers, home-delivered meals, assistance with shopping and laundry, and modifying their residences so they could age in their own homes without having to be placed in a nursing home. It was incredibly rewarding,” she said.
In her current role, she is creating pilot programs and interventions to impact the social determinants of health for an entire population.
“Evidence has shown that addressing social determinants of health through various initiatives improves health outcomes, helps to achieve health equity, and overall reduces health care utilization,” Williams said.
Statistics show that socioeconomic factors make up almost 40 percent of all health outcomes compared to the physical environment (10 percent), overall health behavior (30 percent), and access to quality clinical care (20 percent).
“Food insecurity, housing, transportation, and employment are some big pillars we are looking to address,” she said.
She is especially excited about a housing pilot project involving the agency’s members. The agency will provide housing for ten individuals for up to a year, as well as wraparound services such as health, dental, education and preventive care, and employment.
“But we can’t do this alone,” she said. “I’m creating relationships with community-based organizations so we can all work together to address some of these social determinants. In order to have a healthy overall society, it’s vital to create healthy environments and communities for individuals.”
Williams notes how much health care has changed since she first began working in the field.
“It’s no longer just about going to the doctor and paying for those services. It’s about addressing diet, housing, employment, and transportation needs,” she continued. “It’s exciting to see that the health care community is really embracing population health. And I think it’s going to continue to improve. It’s the basic necessities of life that we’re finally homing in on—treating an individual as a human being, not just a diagnosis.”
Emily Williams’ Steps to a Public Health Career
2012 – bachelor of science degree from MSU in human biology
2012 – care coordinator, Meridian Health Plan
2013 – master of public health degree from MSU
2014 – health care analyst, SSDC Services
2016 – Concerto Health – financial and performance manager; account manager
2019 – director of population health with UnitedHealthcare, Greater Detroit area