Renee Canady

Meet Renee Canady, CEO of the Michigan Public Health Institute and assistant professor at MSU’s College of Human Medicine Division of Public Health. Canady talks about what motivates her, why health equity matters, and the power of community.

October 10, 2019

After earning my undergraduate degree, I spent two years in medical school . . . figuring out that I didn’t want to be a physician. 

I realized I was motivated by the impact of illness on a person and their family not from a biomedical or clinical perspective, but from a social perspective—how illness affects how people see themselves, how the family supports them, and how they figure out all of the systems they have to maneuver.  

In the mid-1980s I decided to transition from medical school into a career. During this same time, HIV (then called HTLV3) came on the scene. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allocated a large amount of funding for prevention, education and understanding HIV.  When the Ingham County Health Department created an AIDS Educator position, I quickly applied and was very excited when I was hired to serve in that new role—my first job after I left medical school.

That position in the health department helped me develop a respect and appreciation for the power of community. The role was all about responding to the needs of community—in terms of knowledge and understanding, but also in terms of caring for people experiencing the disease at that time. 

This began my career trajectory in public health; my subsequent academic preparation paralleled this journey.  

Health Equity – Ensuring Fair and Just Opportunities to Live a Long, Healthy Life

All of my career has been about health equity—even though we didn’t always use that term. We’ve moved from a focus on “cultural competence,” to “diversity,” and now we are transitioning to “health equity.”

There are a lot of different definitions of health equity. But it’s about making sure that everyone has a fair and just opportunity for good health, that everyone has the opportunity to be as healthy as they can be. The challenge is, you can’t have that conversation without talking about the predominant barriers to good health—the issues of poverty, institutional racism, class discrimination, and gender oppression. The solution is to eliminate the root causes of differences in health outcomes and experiences. Those of us in public health must be mindful of reversing those patterns. 

If you’re going to do the work of health equity authentically, then you have to deal with the reasons why people are not healthy. And it’s not just about the poor personal choices that they’re making. If people are making poor choices, we should look at why healthy choices aren’t more readily available for all people.  

This is the frame that we bring to the work with our master’s students. When MSU’s Master of Public Health degree program was launched and I was hired to teach, I was thrilled to be able to remain connected to this next generation of public health leaders. I think our focus is very much driven by our land-grant mission of access and outreach; I believe I bring those strengths to the health equity course I currently teach.

We are now in a time where public health must transform its practice and focus back to the root causes that precipitated the development of our field; especially the inequities experienced by those who were often marginalized and made vulnerable by the circumstances in which they live. Today’s public health professionals must recognize this need to change, and advance the changes that will improve the health of all. C.E. Winslow described the mission of public health as “assuring the conditions necessary for good health.” This parallels our health equity goal of a fair and just opportunity for good health for all.  This is an exciting (and vital) time for public health to advance an agenda of well-being that will make a significant change.

Medical Sociology – Studying the Effects of Social and Cultural Factors on Health

In the mid-1990s, while I was working at MSU, I decided to get a doctoral degree. I found that MSU had a very strong medical sociology program, so I was able to continue working while earning my degree.

During that time, I wrote a supplement to one of my colleague’s research grants, which led to us getting National Institutes of Health funding to study infant mortality. After receiving my Ph.D. in 2001, I spent the next several years as a research faculty member studying infant mortality and the pregnancy experiences of women of color.

In 2007, I was recruited back to the Ingham County Health Department—eventually becoming the director of the institution where I had begun my career.

The Ingham County Health Department had a national reputation for their work in health equity. Being able to go back and help build out their health equity and social justice initiative was really appealing to me. This decision became the launching pad for continuing to expand my own personal and professional growth.

After seven years at the health department, I was recruited to my current position at the Michigan Public Health Institute (MPHI). I always say it was the hardest—but maybe the best—career decision I’ve had to make. For me, MPHI is the perfect integration of academic public health, governmental public health, and community partnerships. It’s the integration of all my “sweet spots.”

I’ve been really grateful to be able to continue to partner with and remain engaged in academic public health through my teaching at MSU, while also being able to support governmental public health through my role at MPHI.

When I came to MPHI, I knew I would be quickly contributing a health equity focus at our institute—and we were successful in establishing a Center for Health Equity Practice. I’m very emphatic about that “P” for “Practice” because it signifies the doing of health equity in our work. Health equity requires action, rather than simply admiring the problem. As public health professionals, we are called to assure the conditions necessary for good health; assurance requires action—action for all. That is health equity.