Student Spotlight: Rachel Bishop, MPH-HSB 65

Photo credit: Reba Saldanha

As a Rappaport Fellow, you were able to engage in public service as an intern with the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing at the MA State House, while also fulfilling your practice requirement.  Tell us about that experience.

I had a fantastic summer working with my state representative Jeffrey Sanchez, House Chairman of the Committee on Health Care Financing. During my 10 weeks, I worked on a series of issue briefs detailing how pending federal health reform would impact Massachusetts, answering questions like “who would lose contraceptive coverage” and “how would this plan augment racial health inequities?” I attended committee hearings on bills from Governor Bakers’ MassHealth proposals to sex ed reform; sat in on meeting with disability rights activists and pharmaceutical reps, and even got to play some raucous games of cornhole with kids at district hotdog nights.

The pace of the State House was unlike anything I’d experienced in the research and non-profit worlds – our work could change at a moment’s (or a tweet’s…) notice. I loved the challenge of staying on top of national and local health policy news, and quickly synthesizing it through the framework of state policy options.

How did these activities enhance your public health training and inform your understanding of public policy? 

I’ve gone from not knowing what a CSR was to having a decent grasp on the complex world of health policy in Massachusetts, and getting to meet many of its major players. One of my biggest lessons this summer has come from watching the ways evidence is (or isn’t) used to inform policymaking in the legislature. I saw a default reliance on reports from major foundations and public entities, and realized the importance of academics who proactively reached out to present their findings. I learned to present data in a way that is easily digestible and makes clear its policy implications.

I’ve testified at hearings as a public health advocate in the past, and being on the other side of the table this summer was an invaluable experience. I watched legislators trying to turn information from disagreeing stakeholders into a decision that at once honored the wishes of their constituents, upheld their own convictions, and was politically and pragmatically feasible, all in the face of federal uncertainty. Understanding those constraints helped me rethink my advocacy strategies moving forward. I saw the successes of advocates who crafted contextually-specific framing and proposed concrete solutions. 

You mention the importance of academics who proactively reach out to legislators to present their findings.  Do you have examples of academics who do this particularly well? 

When I asked Chairman Sanchez about his decision-making process, he told me how much he values the perspectives of researchers. He mentioned both Nancy Krieger and Nancy Turnbull as examples of academics who’ve been influential in using their findings to inform policy-making. In the absence of input from such well-respected academics, legislators must rely on information that is inevitably skewed toward the particular interests of whichever stakeholder produced it. Still, some legislators don’t have the connections to know who’s doing the relevant academic work. That’s why I think it’s important for researchers to be proactive about making themselves a resource. Professor Bryn Austin’s work with STRIPED is a terrific example. The group not only uses data to inform policy-makers, but to craft new legislation. The challenge for academics is staying up to date on what’s going on in the policy world so we can be most impactful.

How did these past ten weeks at the State House inform your final semester at Harvard Chan?  What are your career aspirations?

Heading into my last semester, I’m looking forward to taking more classes in HPM. I want to complement my education on the social determinants of health with an understanding of how the health system might be reshaped to better address inequities. When I graduate, I hope to join a local organization like the Health Policy Commission or MA Planned Parenthood, working at the intersection of research and policy advocacy to build a more equitable and population-oriented health system.

-Interview by Whitney Waddell