Li-Wu Chen, MHSA, PhD, Research on Public Health Services and Systems

Li-Wu Chen, MHSA, PhD

Spotlight on Research at COPH – Dr. Li-Wu Chen’s main research interest is in public health services and systems research (PHSSR). He has directed and conducted several PHSSR projects that were funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). As the co-principal investigator of the RWJF-funded Nebraska Public Health Practice-Based Research Network, Dr. Chen has actively engaged various stakeholders from Nebraska’s public health practice and policy communities in the development, implementation, dissemination, and translation of PHSSR.

Dr. Chen has systematically studied the regional public health agency model in Nebraska. His research suggests that variation in macro contextual variables (e.g., demographic, geographic, and socioeconomic variables) among counties within a regional public health district is negatively associated with the performance of public health practice in regional local health departments (LHDs). For instance, the greater the variation in socioeconomic characteristics among a regional LHD’s member counties, the greater the challenge for the LHD to appropriately develop its public health policies and allocate resources equitably across its district. In addition, Dr. Chen’s research found that a regional public health partnership is most effective in optimizing the involvement of its partners because it is better able to leverage the partners’ strength and resources, and least effective in the domain of management because of challenges resulting from greater geographic distance and limited funding. In general, more effort is needed to maximize the collaborative potential of regional public health partnerships in Nebraska. Dr. Chen’s research has also shown that regional LHDs make resource allocation decisions on the basis of community needs, not on a formula or on individual county population size. The research findings also identified inadequacy and instability of funding as the two main funding challenges encountered by regional LHDs in Nebraska. These challenges may negatively impact the workforce capacity and long-term sustainability of an LHD’s programs.

Dr. Chen’s research uses an innovative approach (i.e., a programmatic area perspective rather than an occupational perspective typically used by researchers and policy makers across the nation) to assess the workforce capacity of Nebraska’s LHDs. This approach led to the finding that a significant proportion of Nebraska’s LHDs do not have staff dedicated to cover the areas of mental health, sexually transmitted diseases, and occupational safety. Using a shortage index estimation approach, his research also suggests that Nebraska’s LHDs experience the greatest workforce shortage in environmental health, followed by chronic diseases, health disparities, and sexually transmitted diseases.

Li-Wu Chen, MHSA, PhD, is a professor in, and the chair of, the UNMC COPH Department of Health Services Research and Administration.