Faculty Spotlight

Rita Hamed
Rita Hamed, MD, PhD

What are you thinking about?

The latest study that I am launching is a research project examining the health effects of school racial segregation.  My team is linking administrative data on racial segregation at the school district level with a number of large population health databases.  We hope to understand the short-term and long-term effects on health of school segregation policies, particularly for black youth and young adults.  Disturbingly, school racial segregation has actually increased in recent years, due to numerous local and court decisions throughout the country that have reversed the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling from 1954.  There is almost no evidence on what this means for children’s health.

How do you see this work building from your previous work, or from previous collaborative endeavors?

My prior research has involved the evaluation of other aspects of educational policies, like understanding how state investments in educational quality affect health.  Through this prior work, I’ve gained expertise in working with the large administrative and health databases that we’ll be using for this new study.  This new study will also build on my existing collaborations with faculty in other departments at UCSF, like Drs. Maria Glymour and Justin White in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, while also building new links with segregation researchers at other universities including Dr. Kiarri Kershaw at Northwestern University and Dr. Sean Reardon at Stanford University.

Why is this interesting to you?

We know that increased racial segregation of schools often leads to lower funding for majority-black schools, which contributes to lower school quality and fewer educational and economic opportunities later in life.  Black students in racially segregated schools may also be subject to higher levels of discrimination and, consequently, more chronic stress.  School environments also affect peer networks and social norms around health behaviors.  All of these are possible risk factors for worse health in later life, but there is virtually no evidence on the consequences of school racial segregation, which could guide the decision-making of public health and education policymakers.  From a more theortitical standpoint, these local “re-segregating” court decisions have resulted in a natural experiment, where some districts are experiencing increased racial segregation; this allows us to tease apart the effects of school segregation separately from the effects of neighborhood segregation and other aspects of schools and families.

What are the practical implications for healthcare and health policy?

At the least, the knowledge that school segregation is a risk factor for poor health would allow us to better target health and counseling interventions to high-risk students or high-risk school settings.  From a broader societal perspective, if we find that school segregation contributes to worse health over a child’s life, this would provide even more evidence to policymakers and communities who seek to desegregate school settings.

How do the things you are thinking about pertain to the challenges facing the world today?

With the recent focus on police brutality and the racial disparities in the health and economic effects of COVID-19, there is a lot of interest now in the myriad ways that structural racism in our society affects the health of black individuals and other people of color.  In my field of social epidemiology, we have been sounding the alarm for decades about racial and socioeconomic disparities in health, and that these disparities are due to longstanding social injustices rather than biological differences race, which itself is a social construct.  This study will provide scientific evidence about a specific aspect of the social environment in children’s lives, to help move that conversation forward.

Rita Hamad, MD, PhD
Dr. Hamad’s research focuses on the pathways linking poverty and education with health disparities across the life course. She is the director of the Social Policies for Health Equity Research Program and the Associate Director of the Center for Health Equity. She is also a member of the steering committee of the UCSF Population Health Data Initiative, serving as the Faculty Lead for the development of data infrastructure to advance population health research on campus. She serves on the communications committee of the Interdisciplinary Association for Population Health Science.