10 Questions With New UHS Director Micah Griffin
In the past year, Dr. Micah Griffin has undergone some of life’s biggest changes all while in the middle of a pandemic.
He’s moved to a new state, become a father for the first time, and taken up the role of Penn State University Health Service’s new director.
Griffin has spent more than a decade in leadership roles in college health enterprises. Most recently, he served as director of health programs at the City University of New York’s Kingsborough Community College. Prior to that, Griffin worked as the director of Student Health and Counseling Services at Alabama A&M.
Onward State virtually sat down with Griffin to talk about the importance of college health and his stances on pivotal issues like racial justice and mental health.
Onward State: What made you want to come to Penn State?
Micah Griffin: I think it was one: the opportunity. With Penn State being such a large university, serving such a large student population, I thought it was a great opportunity to influence the health outcome for these students and to be able to play a leadership role in how our ambulatory health care services work, but also support the larger conversation around health and well-being.
When I looked at what the student health center looked like here at Penn State from just the history of it to the size and scope and services offered, I thought it was a great opportunity to come and contribute my services here and help grow what we’re doing.
OS: How have your prior life and career experiences shaped your goals or vision surrounding health care?
MG: I started off my career in public health. If you know anything about public health, or for those who don’t, public health has a mission to actually improve the health of individuals and communities. When I decided to enter health care, I thought that was a great way to impact underserved or marginalized communities.
From there, I grew that into a career that impacted student health. A lot of times we don’t think about how student health is directly related to public health. But when you look at a college campus, it’s essentially a community. I love being able to connect with students because I feel like I’m young enough where I can still connect with students but old enough where I can bridge those gaps and have informed conversations with senior administrators to be able to advocate for student needs.
OS: What is your favorite part about working in health care specifically in a college atmosphere?
MG: I think college students are at a prime age where we aren’t dealing with chronic diseases for the most part because most college students are relatively healthy, so when you talk about delivering health services to a relatively healthy population, you have to be very strategic in how you talk about that.
I think a lot of times what is missed in college health is that we aren’t necessarily trying to change your specific behaviors right now, we’re just trying to instill better health-seeking behaviors. So that way, when you graduate and you get in your 30s, 40s, and 50s, you’re making more informed decisions then, so you prevent or lower your chances of seeing some of those diseases we see show up later in life.
OS: What does racial and economic equity in the world of health care mean to you?
MG: It means almost everything. I don’t think you can have a conversation about health outcomes without considering the role that racial justice, racial discrimination, and economic discrimination have played in health outcomes.
I think what we’re starting to see what COVID-19 has shown is just that — that COVID doesn’t discriminate, but some of our neighborhoods, communities, and states do. A lot of times, the environment structures where you live or the community you live in directly impact your health outcomes. That was prevalent or shown so much during COVID. I think it highlighted the racial and ethnic disparities we already knew were there, but I think it just heightened that.
I think it’s very important to not separate those two but to recognize that we have a history of racism in this country in a lot of communities. I think it’s important for not only providers and practitioners but also health care administrators and advocates to recognize those things and to create programs to combat that and close that disparity gap.
OS: What do you think is the biggest challenge that students are facing in the realm of health care?
MG: I think it goes back to those health-seeking behaviors and what those are. I think a lot of times, college students feel that they’re in this space where they’re invincible, and they can drink as much as they want, sleep as little as they want, have multiple relationships, and do whatever, and there are no consequences.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t do any of those things in moderation, but I’m saying at this college age, we oftentimes don’t really consider the consequences of our actions.
What we’re trying to do in this space as college health administrators is not to come out as this force wagon saying, ‘You can’t do this, can’t do that,’ but if you’re to do these things, at least have the information so you can make the best-informed decision for your health and the people around you.
I think the biggest challenge for college students is knowing when to seek help and when to go home. Not even necessarily from a mental health standpoint, but from a physical health standpoint.
OS: How do you think the coronavirus pandemic has changed health care?
MG: I think it’s shown us that we don’t take public health seriously in this country or on college campuses or anywhere across America, and that’s true when you look at funding
It’s no secret that you can ask any public health manager or leader in this country and they’ll tell you that they’re underfunded. A lot of times, health isn’t a linear process, and there’s not necessarily a beginning and an end to health care, it’s mostly managed and continuous.
In healthcare something that we don’t practice a lot in America, is prevention. We don’t always place our emphasis on prevention versus treatment in this industry. With a virus like COVID, everything is in prevention. Masking is a preventative method, social distancing is a preventative method, a vaccine is a prevention method. Those are all things that I just mentioned that usually go underfunded or underappreciated. This virus has exposed those gaps or cracks in our fragile health care system.
OS: When thinking about Penn State and UHS’s response to the pandemic, how would you define “success” in terms of coming out of this successfully on the other side?
MG: You could ask 10 different people and get 10 different answers. I think my ultimate goal as a health care professional is to reduce death. To reduce untimely, premature, death.
People may say COVID isn’t that serious because most young people don’t die from it, you can look at the numbers of people that get sick who don’t die from it, and while that may be true, there are still over 500,000 people in America that have died from this virus.
We obviously don’t want people to get sick, but we also don’t want you to die when you do get sick. So what does success look like? It looks like lowering the number of people that are diagnosed with COVID. But also, if you do get it, we want to lower the severity of how sick you may get.
Success looks like [Penn State] lowering the number of students who test positive on a regular basis, while also being able to resume normal activities.
OS: In the middle of an extremely challenging year, how do you handle adversity, and what advice would you give to students facing hardships of their own right now?
MG: This has been a difficult year for everybody, regardless of your social status, race, education level. I don’t think we all understand or expected the ripple effect a pandemic can have not only on your physical health, but your social health, mental health, and spiritual health, too. This virus has touched every aspect of our lives.
Even though I’m a health care professional who understands these dynamics, I was still impacted. I just had my first son in the middle of the pandemic. Just connecting over Zoom or doing all these things virtually just isn’t the same.
I’ve had to find other outlets. Whether that’s binging on Netflix for some nights, or just going on a walk for some fresh air and facing my face to the sun and being thankful for what I do have, because like I mentioned earlier, half a million people aren’t here today that otherwise may have been here if this virus wasn’t in place.
If you’re somebody that is reading this or listening to this, or able to even go to a Zoom meeting, a lot of people can’t do that. If you’re somebody that hasn’t been directly affected by COVID, that’s a great place to be. I think just be thankful for what you do have and what you’ve been able to get through.
Recognize and be present in the fact that you’re making it through a very challenging time. It’s OK to say no to things and recognize that you have to take care of yourself first. That means talking to someone and not being afraid to reach out for help when you need it.
OS: When you’re not working, what do you enjoy spending your time doing?
Dr. Griffin: Now, I would say it’s with my family. I think in the past, I would have said with my family, too. But now we have a new addition, so it’s just watching my baby boy grow. Every day we just explore that time with him and seeing him interact and learn to crawl and walk, and I love just seeing that sheer joy of a new baby that has no knowledge of what’s going on except he just wants mamma and he wants dada.
Becoming a father over the past year has really given me a new perspective on life, and it’s really positioned me to want to create a better world for him.
OS: Per Onward State tradition, if you could be any dinosaur which would you want to be and why?
Dr. Griffin: A triceratops. One, because they remind me of elephants and I think elephants are cool because they’re big, and they don’t make a lot of noise, but you move out of the way when you see them coming.
A triceratops reminds me of this elephant that is just this massive, huge slow-moving strategic dinosaur that doesn’t have to do a whole lot of yelling and moving but you see their presence. Plus, their arms are really cool.
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“I’ll take them all if they’ll help us getting back to normal, if they’ll help me getting back with my family.”
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