Assistant Professor ofHealth and Nutrition SciencesGarumma Tolu Feyissais one of 30 new Brooklyn College faculty members for fall 2023. Teaching in the School of Natural and Behavioral Sciences, Feyissa is well versed in his key areas of research—health equity, maternal and child health, mental health, and sexual and reproductive health, and is passionate about expanding evidence-based policy and practice in health and social care through evidence-based research and teaching. He also seeks to bridge the gap between research and policy/practice by responding to requests from policymakers and practitioners and by utilizing methodologies that involve knowledge appraisal, synthesis, and translation.

We asked Feyissa why he chose Brooklyn College and why maternal health is such an area of interest for him.

What brought you to Brooklyn College?

I joined Brooklyn College driven by my passion for research, education, and a commitment to making a positive impact in the community. It gives me a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment to guide and support students on their educational journey. Brooklyn is an ideal setting to implement high-quality educational and mentoring strategies to support the career journeys of students.

I was also attracted to the diversity of students, staff, and faculty. I appreciate the college’s efforts to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion. I believe that diversity enriches the educational experience and promotes an atmosphere of respect and understanding. In addition, the college’s emphasis on community partnerships and services aligns with my desire to advance evidence-informed policy and practice through community-based research and community engagement. The college is also located in a vibrant and culturally diverse borough that offers unique opportunities for community engagement.

What got you interested in health-equity issues?

Health equity is all about reducing avoidable and unjust inequalities in health outcomes and access to health care. I grew up in a rural developing country where most morbidities and mortalities are attributable to preventable causes and unjust distribution of services. Every person, regardless of his or her background, deserves the same chance of enjoying a healthy life.

Imagine how it feels when you are told that the likelihood of your wife’s death during childbirth is threefold just because she is Black, or because she lives in a certain neighborhood, or because she is from a low-income household. Imagine being told that the likelihood that your newborn will die in its first year is twice that of other newborns just because his mother is Black. So, my deep commitment to addressing disparities in health outcomes and access to health care services among different populations motivated me to investigate health outcomes from a health equity lens, where we explore various social and structural determinants of health. This involves a multidisciplinary approach to understanding and addressing health issues, and it will create an opportunity to collaborate with experts from multiple disciplines. This creates a conducive situation to explore complex and multifaceted issues that contribute to health disparities. It will also offer momentous opportunities for innovation in health care delivery, policy development, and intervention, and this is intellectually inspiring for me. Contributing to the knowledge base that improves the lives of underserved communities and individuals is a source of professional satisfaction for me.

You are a researcher on maternal health. What are the biggest issues you see in this area?

Generally, maternal health issues are diverse and are rooted in social, physical, and policy environments. The magnitude may vary from setting to setting. We may list the direct causes of maternal deaths as deaths from cardiovascular disorders, deaths due to the worsening of pre-existing conditions during pregnancy, and deaths related to newly developed conditions such as bleeding and infections, or to factors related to stress such as substance misuse and mental health conditions. Although there are complicated and diverse problems related to maternal health, most of the preventable issues are related to inequitable access to information and the lack of inclusive and culturally appropriate services. The sad news is that these deaths disproportionately affect underserved communities, but the good news is that most of those deaths are preventable. Approaching the problems from the perspective of their social determinants is more impactful and efficient than a disease-based approach.

What are some maternal health policies you would recommend be implemented?

The most efficient and effective way to address maternal health issues is through a multifaceted approach involving factors both within and outside health care systems. Recent efforts that focused on the engagement of the community, promotion of health equity, and approaching health issues holistically are promisingly effective. When I say approaching health issues holistically, I mean addressing not only the physical dimension of health but also the promotion of mental and social well-being. This is particularly important because recent data are showing increasing mental health problems, substance use, and suicide as causes of maternal deaths. While physical problems are still important, the consequences of mental health problems are substantial. Not only are these problems severe, but they also affect future generations, families, and society at large. And again, these mental health problems disproportionally affect underserved communities. While there are policies for each specific health issue, improving access to socially responsive high-quality services, and establishing health care navigation strategies tailored to the needs of the community are some crucial assignments toward which all of us should put our energy. This underscores the need to address the major issues from a health-equity lens. This also requires a continuous dialogue between policymakers, researchers, and the community.

What do you think Brooklyn College students and faculty can contribute to maternal health issues and health care disparities in general?

As faculty, along with our students, we conduct research to further understand these health issues and how to translate the evidence into policy and practice. We also engage and co-learn with our communities and work with them to design strategies to tackle health care disparities. Every party has a stake here. Nothing can be successful if one of the parties is missing or not discharging their responsibility to the extent that is required of them. So, my message is to remind each member of our community—community-based organizations, city, state, and federal agencies, our students, staff, and faculty—that their roles are crucial, and nothing will be achieved with the limited involvement of any party. With full engagement and commitment, we can bring impactful change and build a healthy society.