Alex Ortega stepped into his role as dean of the Thompson School of Social Work & Public Health at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa on September 1, and is excited to be back in Hawaiʻi where he grew up in the 1980s. He was appointed dean by the UH Board of Regents in February 2023.
Ortega has spent the past 25 years as a health care policy and equity researcher, with a particular focus on the health and well-being of Latino populations.
“I am excited to be at the University at Hawaiʻi, a Native Hawaiian place of learning, where there is so much focus and interest in improving the conditions of the state’s most disenfranchised people,” said Ortega. “I am looking forward to using my knowledge and experiences in working with disadvantaged and underrepresented populations to help advance UH’s mission of fostering healthy and resilient communities.”
Ortega has held faculty positions in public health at Yale University, UCLA, and most recently at Drexel University in Philadelphia. At both UCLA and Drexel, he directed National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded research centers focused on health equity and promotion.
Raised in Hawaiʻi, Ortega attended Hickam Elementary, Aliamanu Middle and Radford High School. He earned his BA in economics from University of New Mexico, his MPH in epidemiology and biostatistics from Boston University, and his PhD in epidemiologic science from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Helping transform minoritized communities
“As a Latino myself, I value the importance of health equity research that can be translated into policies and programs to transform minoritized communities,” Ortega said.
His focus areas include access to physical and mental health care, the impact of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on health equity and access to care, improving healthy food access in urban food deserts, and the effects of public health disasters on population health and healthcare systems.
He brings to UH with him four NIH-funded research grants totaling $12 million. This includes a recently-funded $3 million grant to study health-related mis- and disinformation about health care access and health rights among Latino immigrants, who have the lowest rates of health insurance coverage and the worst access to health care patterns compared to other population groups in the country.
“This new study aims to understand immigrants’ sources of mis- and disinformation, the processes by which they come to make health decisions, and the related ‘chilling effects,’ which is the deterrent of participating in human rights because of political actions or fear of political actions,” said Ortega.
As dean, Ortega is looking forward to working with the Thompson school ʻohana to expand on its impressive record of training and research, locally and globally. He believes it’s an important time to be in social work and public health as there is significant need in the community, professional shortages, and so much to learn.
“The opportunities are rich at the Thompson school for innovative research, training and outreach focused on improving the health and well-being of all Hawaiʻi residents, especially those who are disadvantaged, and to expand our reach throughout the Pacific region and beyond,” he said. “The recent COVID-19 pandemic and the devastating fire disaster in Maui have highlighted the importance of social work and public health in working with communities so that resources are effectively distributed, information is accurately and well-coordinated, people are connected to services, and social and health care systems are prepared.”
Ortega added, “It is a privilege to be leading a school that has a significant impact in our society and can contribute state-of-the-art knowledge to improve research and practice related to vital issues in our communities.”