February 11th, 2011
It’s been said that physicians often are so focused on their specialty that they can’t see the forest for the trees. But that’s certainly not the case with Roger Rosenblatt, MD, who not only sees the forest and the trees – but also owns a working forest and uses it to teach residents and promote health to young children.
Rosenblatt owns a 500-acre forest in Washington State. He may be the only family physician who is also a master-degreed forester and spans multiple boundaries with teaching appointments across three separate schools at the University of Washington: The School of Medicine; the Departments of Health Services and Global Health in the School of Public Health; and the College of the Environment (which incorporates the former College of Forest Resources).
In 1971, after finishing Harvard Medical School, Rosenblatt moved to Seattle where he became that school’s first family medicine resident. After finishing his residency in 1974, he joined the U.S. Public Health Service to help launch the National Health Service Corps, a federal program that recruits health care providers to go to underserved areas, many of which are rural. After a few years, he began craving a more rural environment himself. He had purchased 140 acres of land while working on a rural rotation during residency and soon began systematically adding to that – and started making the connection between the environment and health.
“I became more sensitive to the inter-relationships between the health of the people and the environments in which they lived: the physical environment; the social environment; the cultural environment; the economic environment,” he says.
That’s when, in 1985, he got the idea to start the University of Washington’s Rural Health Research Center to better understand the links between health and rural environments.
Rosenblatt says his “Aha moment” of connecting health with forestry came when his trees were attacked by lethal bark beetles due to population overgrowth of the trees that comprised the forest.
“It’s an interesting analogy, but when it got the disease, I realized I had to learn something about forest ecology and actively manage the forest, so I started taking a few courses in the Forestry school,” he says. “It was just exhilarating because it had a lot of overlap with medicine. I was learning about new biological systems, new creatures, new diseases, new issues.”
But the University of Washington had a rule: no one could take more than three classes without actually working toward a degree. Rosenblatt surprised his faculty colleagues when he decided to pursue a master’s degree in forestry in order to continue taking classes.
“For five years I took a course every quarter,” he says. “Along the way, I started writing about it.”
The more Rosenblatt wrote and continued his studies, the more absorbed he became in the congruence between the natural world and human health – especially the environment’s impact on health and the issues surrounding global warming.
That’s when another idea took root: start a class for graduate students across the health professions of medicine, nursing, dentistry, pharmacy to open their eyes to the connections. That class, called Environmental Change and Human Health, became a popular elective.
And, just as happens in nature, another evolution took place. The course helped catalyze the design of a potential new master’s degree and certificate program called Conservation of Living System. In the process of designing the course, the faculty committee involved had a major influence on the decision of the University of Washington to start a completely new college: The College of the Environment.
But his passion goes beyond the Ivory Tower of academia. Rosenblatt uses his land as a teaching tool. It has been the basis of both a thesis and a dissertation for his students. But the most satisfying experience is bringing seventh graders from the poor rural school in the area every year to experience and study the land.
“We do a lot of work with the schools, my wife and I. We work around natural systems,” he says. “But I have an ulterior motive: to try to get these kids interested in math and science so perhaps they could become health care providers in the future.”
The irony for kids in many rural areas is that they can be just as unhealthy as their urban counterparts. While inner city children may desire the open, safe spaces of the country, rural children often just immerse themselves in the Walmart and TV culture, ignoring the resources surrounding them, says Rosenblatt.
“With some exceptions, most of these kids don’t know a wide open space from a narrow alley,” he says. “They don’t take advantage of where they’re living and they’ve become deprived of nature. There’s a whole bunch of literature around that, the nature deprivation syndrome that occurs in rural areas.”
It’s Rosenblatt’s work across the boundaries of medicine and the environment that he says keeps him motivated.
“For me, I’ve always found that the most interesting place to work intellectually is at the boundaries,” he says. “It’s always been the most interesting and fruitful place to work, where you’re able to look at metaphors and hypotheses and world views that tend to bump into each other – different ways of explaining the world. That’s where I’m most comfortable intellectually and that’s where, by bringing those insights together, I’ve felt like I’ve had more impact than staying in a narrow discipline.”
Ecological Changes & The Future of the Human Species
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