Granville Vance Public Health (GVPH) was created in the 1970s to pool scarce resources to meet public health needs in two neighboring rural counties in northern North Carolina. Today, under the leadership of Director Lisa Macon Harrison, MPH, it is the hub for an innovative partnership between local public health leaders, higher education institutions, organizations and community members that leverage resources and expertise to improve community health.

“We want the best outcomes for our community, so we work on elevating the practice of public health at every turn,” says Harrison, an adjunct professor in the School’s Public Health Leadership Program. “It’s important to build or maintain community partner relationships and improve public health practice at the same time.”

Harrison began building these partnerships in 2012, inspired by the Academic Health Department (AHD) model. Like a teaching hospital trains aspiring doctors, AHDs educate the current and future public health workforce, strengthen the connection between public health practice and academia, and provide opportunities for research and service.

Key partners for GVPH include the North Carolina Institute for Public Health, Gillings students and faculty, other colleges and universities, the Research Triangle Institute, and community members. GVPH’s partnership with the Gillings School hinges on the work of Carmen Samuel-Hodge, RD, PhD, an associate professor in the School’s Department of Nutrition and a researcher at the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.

Lisa Macon Harrison, MPH,

Director of Granville Vance Public Health

We want the best outcomes for our community, so we work on elevating the practice of public health at every turn.

Working on site at GVPH one to two days per week as an embedded researcher, Samuel-Hodge leads the department’s chronic disease prevention strategies, including interventions for improving nutrition and physical activity behaviors and the Minority Diabetes Prevention Program. She advises staff on evidence-based program implementation and has used her grant-writing expertise to help support the agency’s work in the community, which primarily focuses on mental health and substance use, youth well-being, and access to healthcare.

The partnership has been critical in securing an additional $1 million yearly in grant funds, as well as increased funding support from the county. New evaluation, quality improvement, grant management and project management strategies have been implemented in the agency. GVPH leads the region’s coordinated approach to child health as part of the Working on Wellness community coalition, collecting data and conducting analysis. It publishes in journals and presents at national conferences, which is uncommon for local health departments.

Samuel-Hodge’s research has become a model for using community engagement to solve health inequities. “Most of the evidence for public health interventions is generated from non-rural samples, so we don’t know if an intervention will actually work in a rural context where the resources are often limited,” she says. “How do you adapt what has been shown to work, to make it work in a different setting? A one-size-fits-all public health solution doesn’t work in practice — it ignores context and the need to adapt to people and place.”