‘A healthy workforce is a productive workforce’

College of Public Health researchers help policymakers connect human, economic health

By: 

  • Misti Crane
August 11, 2020
Short North, Columbus, Ohio
Short North, Columbus, Ohio

Deep concern about the pandemic’s economic fallout has accompanied worry about illnesses and deaths since COVID-19 arrived in Ohio.

Researchers from the College of Public Health’s Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Evaluation Studies, or HOPES, have been working alongside state leaders to monitor the health of the economy and lay the groundwork for recovery from the downturn coronavirus has brought.

“From the beginning we’ve understood that the cure can’t be worse than the disease. We’re trying to help the state balance the risk to the economy with the reward of saving lives,” said Eric Seiber, director of the Center for HOPES and a professor of health services management and policy.

The work has brought together a coalition of agencies and leaders and has focused on data-driven analysis of the effects and predicted outcomes of policy approaches.

“There is a view that the health interventions come at the cost of the economy. So, early on, some interest groups wanted the economy open sooner rather than later,” Seiber said.

That perspective was short sighted, said Lisa Frazier, a research specialist and policy analyst for the Center for HOPES.

“A healthy workforce is a productive workforce. The pandemic has thrown that into stark relief. When people are really sick or worried about becoming sick, they don’t shop, they don’t go to work, and they’re not productive in the economic sense either, as consumers,” she said.

Consumer confidence is the key to economic health in a state where about 65 percent of the economy is based on consumer spending, Seiber said, adding that the consumers with the most to contribute to the economy also happen to be those at highest risk of severe illness.

“Senior citizens are the richest segment of the population and the most likely to die from the virus,” Seiber said. 

Planning carefully to ideally avoid serious spikes in infections is key to preserving the economy, he said. 

“If I have a store in the Hocking Hills, I need people to come down, but the only way they are going to come down is if they feel safe,” Seiber said, adding that the work he is leading is focused on identifying differences that may be impacting Ohioans differently based on where they live. 

The ongoing collaboration with the state has included monitoring unemployment claims data and Medicaid enrollment data for trends and to predict future enrollment.

“This work has been about untangling the impact of policy decisions from the impact of the virus itself. The state can’t control the virus, but it can control its actions,” said Kristin Harlow, a policy analyst and senior consulting research statistician in the Center for HOPES.

Aside from the Department of Health, the HOPES team has been working with state agencies including the Office of Budget and Management, the Development Services Agency, the Department of Administrative Services, Job and Family Services and the Department of Medicaid.

“These are partners that don’t traditionally look to the College of Public Health. But we’re the exact right partner here, because we focus on the intersection of economic and human health,” Seiber said. “We all want to save lives and minimize the economic impact, but the people who work in those two worlds often speak indifferent terms. We’re helping them reach a common understanding.”

The College of Public Health team involved in this work also includes two doctoral students, Selasi Attipoe and Brian O’Rourke. The experience has been especially rich for the graduate students, who ordinarily would have limited opportunity to work on health policy matters with people outside of academia, Seiber said.

“This is teaching them to communicate with non-academics and take these fancy methods we teach them and distill information down to very timely and adjustable information. They’re stripping away the complexity and leaving just what the decision maker must know to make good policy,” he said.

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About The Ohio State University College of Public Health

The Ohio State University College of Public Health is a leader in educating students, creating new knowledge through research, and improving the livelihoods and well-being of people in Ohio and beyond.  The College’s divisions include biostatistics, environmental health sciences, epidemiology, health behavior and health promotion, and health services management and policy.   It is ranked 23rd among all colleges of public health in the U.S. by U.S. News and World Report, and also includes the top 7-ranked MHA degree program.  The College provides leadership and expertise for Ohio and the world through its Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Evaluation Studies (HOPES), Center for Public Health Practice (CPHP), and Center for the Advancement of Tobacco Science (CATS).