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Is Public Health Suffering From a Crisis of Confidence?


A key feature of the new NIH-funded study is the active role Bentley students will have as research assistants. “As teacher-scholars, all three of us regard student participation as a central pillar of our research,” DeLeo says. The professors hope to engage at least six undergraduates to participate in all three years of the study, so that students can benefit from intensive, hands-on research experience. The study will apply cutting-edge analytical methods, including machine learning algorithms and latent textual mining, and “students will be involved in the refinement of research questions, development of coding manuals, modeling strategic and analysis plans and finalizing research protocols,” Hartigan explains.  

In exploring the interplay between institutional trust and COVID-related health decisions, the research team will investigate how geographical and socio-demographic factors — such as race, gender, economic status, educational attainment and political preference — influence individual perceptions of public health recommendations. They therefore hope to engage a diverse group of student researchers who can “offer really rich ideas and perspectives” by virtue of their lived experiences, says DeLeo, noting that he, Dave and Hartigan have already connected with Jane De Leon Griffin, associate provost of student success, and colleagues in the Center for Women and Business to encourage first-generation and female students to apply.  

The professors also believe the study has the potential to inform broader social justice concerns related to public health. “We know that certain groups were disproportionately affected by COVID,” Dave explains, noting that infection and death rates were higher for communities of color during the earlier stages of the pandemic, when vaccines were not yet available. By offering a more nuanced understanding of institutional trust and “how cultural and social phenomena can affect personal health behaviors,” he says, their research could provide insights that help reduce existing disparities in the U.S. health care system. 

According to DeLeo, one of the pandemic’s key takeaways is that “infrastructure and capacity alone aren’t enough to achieve successful health outcomes.” With Americans’ faith in the federal government and public health agencies at historic lows, he says, “We need to ask ourselves, where do we go from here? What pathways can we identify to build and repair the institutional trust that has diminished during this period?” 

After all, DeLeo cautions, “COVID-19 isn’t going to be the last public health crisis we face in our lifetimes. If we, as a society, want to successfully and effectively navigate similar situations, we’re going to need to trust one other.”

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