Q&A: Micah Berman aims to foster collaboration in new role

Creative, transdisciplinary thinking needed to impact health policy, he says

Kristen Mitchell
Micah Berman

Meet Micah Berman, an international expert in tobacco policy and the College of Public Health’s new Stephen F. Loebs Professor in Health Services Management and Policy. 

Berman shares the big questions that guide his work, his aim to support innovative research partnerships and the moments that make him most proud to work in public health. 

How did you get involved in public health policy research?

To put it mildly, I did not follow the traditional academic path. In 2005, after several years as a trial lawyer, I shifted career paths and established the Ohio Tobacco Public Policy Center to provide legal and policy support to tobacco control efforts in Ohio. Soon thereafter, Mary Ellen Wewers, then associate dean for research at the College of Public Health, reached out to me. She had the intuition that legal and regulatory expertise could be a beneficial addition to the public health research happening at Ohio State. She introduced me to a range of researchers at the College of Public Health, including Amy Ferketich and Eric Seiber, and we soon found opportunities for productive collaborations. These collaborations sparked my interest in working on health policy as a researcher, and after spending several years on the East Coast, I returned to Columbus and joined the College of Public Health faculty in 2013. 

Are there any big questions that guide your work?

At the 30,000-foot level, I’m interested in how laws and legal doctrines shape health outcomes, and how health-related research can inform policy change. Nearly everything that impacts health — where we live, the food we eat, the structure of the healthcare system, our knowledge of health risks and much more — is shaped by a complex network of laws. But the impact of these laws on health is too rarely studied systematically. Once we start thinking about laws as a key determinant of health, we can start thinking in scientific way about how laws are contributing to poor outcomes and health inequities, and how new approaches could help reverse these trends.  

Your primary focus is tobacco policy. How does that type of work connect to other pressing public health and health care policy conversations?

Throughout my career, I’ve been taking lessons learned through my work in tobacco policy and thinking (and writing) about how they can be applied more broadly. Through the initial lens tobacco policy, I’ve developed expertise in issues that cut across many different subject areas — administrative authority, preemption, the First Amendment, health equity, advocacy strategies and more. I’ve also had the opportunity to collaborate with leading scholars in the many disciplines needed to inform tobacco policy: epidemiology, psychology, communications, toxicology, economics, medicine, data analytics, ethics and more. A core theme of my co-authored book, The New Public Health Law, is that policy change is a cooperative enterprise requiring many different forms of expertise. That collaboration across disciplines is what I’ve enjoyed most about being at Ohio State and what keeps me energized about taking on new challenges.

What has made you most proud about your work in public health policy?

I love my job in part because it is (at least) three jobs in one — teacher, researcher and advocate. As a teacher, nothing makes me prouder than seeing my students go on to have their own successful careers in health policy. As a researcher, I’ve worked toward integrating rigorous legal analysis into policy research and toward building up the broader academic field of public health law. In both areas there’s been gratifying progress. As an advocate, I’ve focused on advancing policies that reduce tobacco-related disease and death. There is still much to be done, but it’s hard to overstate the progress that’s been made since 2005 when there were still smoking sections in restaurants throughout Ohio and 24% of Ohio high school students had smoked a cigarette in the past month compared to 3% today. It’s been immensely rewarding to play a small part in that progress. 

How will your new role as the Stephen F. Loebs Professor in Health Services Management and Policy enable you to strengthen the impact of your work?

The Loebs professorship gives me a tremendous platform from which to help build new connections across the university — with community partners, with health care systems and with many others. My goal with this professorship is not to promote my own work, but to help make Ohio State — and the Health Services Management and Policy (HSMP) division in particular — a top destination for the study of health policy, while maintaining and strengthening its status as a top-tier place for the study of health administration. The health policy challenges we face, in Ohio and nationally, are massive. Despite spending far more on health care per person than any other nation, life expectancy in the United States is falling for the first time in generations, and health disparities continue to widen. We need creative, transdisciplinary thinking and an all-hands-on-deck approach. With its incredible size and scope, Ohio State has the multi-disciplinary expertise needed to make a difference.

What types of opportunities for large-scale health policy research would you like to see our faculty and students explore?

HSMP faculty are already engaged in impactful research, often in collaboration with one another, and their research provides incredible learning experiences for students. My hope is to help foster further integration and teamwork, so we can look broadly at how law, policies and governance structures (in both the public and private sectors) drive health outcomes locally, statewide, nationally and internationally. With three faculty members (including me) holding joint appointments between HSMP and the Moritz College of Law, we are uniquely well-positioned to take on that type of research.

Do you have advice for public health students as they think about their future careers and the impact they can have within the field?

Your career is almost certainly going to take you in unexpected directions. Embrace opportunities that excite you and challenge you, even if they come along by surprise.