Public Exchange’s new Health and Wellbeing Practice aims to create solutions to homelessness, mental health, food insecurity and other pressing social issues. (Composite: Kim Nguyen. Image source: iStock.)

USC Dornsife’s Public Exchange launches practice to tackle health and well-being challenges

Led by a former White House senior policy advisor, the new practice provides expert research and project management services to government, industry and nonprofit partners.
BySusan Bell

To meet urgent challenges related to health and amid growing demand for applied research, Public Exchange (PX) at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences recently launched its Health and Wellbeing Practice.

Sujeet Rao, a veteran business leader and former senior policy advisor to the White House, leads the new practice.

Why it matters: The nation faces a number of interrelated and compounding challenges related to health and well-being. Many of these challenges are growing in scope or becoming more acute as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • The nation’s health care workforce is burned out at a time when our need for medical care is growing and the population is aging.
  • Major cities and states across the country struggle to address a growing homelessness and housing affordability crisis.
  • The United States faces “a public health crisis of loneliness, isolation and lack of connection,” that particularly affects young people, according to the U.S. Surgeon General.
  • This past summer, the hottest on record, portends myriad health-related challenges arising from extreme heat and other climate conditions.

A first-of-its-kind program, PX helps government, industry and nonprofit partners address some of the world’s most intractable issues by connecting them with the right researchers at USC and beyond and by managing research projects from start to finish.

Sujeet Rao. (Photo: Courtesy of Rao.)

Experienced leadership: Made possible through increased philanthropic support and other funding, the new practice is led by Rao, who recently served in the Biden White House on the COVID-19 Response Team.

  • When Delta and Omicron variants surged, Rao coordinated the largest domestic deployment of federal medical personnel in United States history, mobilizing 5,000 personnel across 49 states and territories.
  • He also coordinated federal efforts to distribute new COVID therapeutics quickly and equitably, establishing a network of 40,000 sites within weeks.
  • He has since advised private sector and academic partners on a range of business and policy issues, including national pandemic preparedness and response strategy.

Rao joins PX Senior Project Manager Caroline Nguyen, formerly at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, and PX Project Manager John Fanning to form the new team.

In his words: “Public Exchange is eager to build on the work it has been doing since 2020, continuing to deliver new insights that can have a tangible impact on our world. Our work spans a wide range of issues, but the throughline across all of them is impact,” Rao says.

The new practice is putting together partnerships and projects, including those that may be unconventional, to address a range of issues that pose multifaceted challenges, such as:

  • Health care infrastructure, focusing on reinforcing the workforce and establishing resilient supply chains
  • Mental health, especially for health care clinicians, new parents and young people
  • Homelessness
  • Environmental health, including effects of extreme heat, in collaboration with PX’s Climate and Sustainability Practice
  • Food and nutrition insecurity

Go deeper: Since 2020, PX has partnered with leading stakeholders across the public and private sectors to help leaders better understand and respond to the challenges related to food and nutrition insecurity.

  • An interdisciplinary PX team recently released findings from a study showing that 30% of L.A. County residents (more than 1 million households) currently experience food insecurity.
  • To help county officials and stakeholders tailor interventions and deploy resources where they’re needed most, the team is developing a multilayered data dashboard.

Impact: The PX team’s research has prompted action from leaders.

  • A. County’s Chief Sustainability Office is using it to frame a media campaign and op-ed about the county’s new Food Equity Grant.
  • A. Regional Food Bank is sharing the report with legislators in the state and federal governments.

PX’s ongoing study findings on food and nutrition insecurity have brought global attention to the issue through stories in local, national and international media.

Why now? PX has grown rapidly since it launched in 2020 as it tackles some of the biggest challenges society faces in areas where academic expertise can make an outsized impact.

  • “The projects and partnerships that PX’s Health and Wellbeing Practice assembles will reveal new insights with a direct impact on policy, practice and people at the local and national level,” says PX Director Kate Weber.
  • “Leaders need research and evidence more than ever,” she adds. PX focuses onboth long-standing and emerging issues, and leaders are confronting them in the face of massive technological, global and social changes.

Bottom Line: “PX is helping create new ways for academic experts and research to make a concrete impact on our world. The new Health and Wellbeing Practice will carry that work forward in an area that touches everyone,” says Weber.