Disciplines in the Program

The social science disciplines of economics, political science and sociology have made important contributions to health policy research by providing useful and insightful frameworks for understanding and analyzing the health sector and its problems.

In the current environment—marked by an aging population, the increased prevalence of chronic illness and of conditions associated with culture and lifestyle, and an overburdened public health system—the United States urgently needs social scientists who will apply their disciplinary perspectives to complex policy questions.

Economists may inform the policy discussion by:

  • assessing the effects of continued health spending growth on federal and state budgets, as well as alternative policy options for controlling such growth and increasing the value obtained from health care;
  • analyzing the implications and effects of different tax policies on the health and well-being of populations and of individuals;
  • increasing our understanding of the cognitive factors that influence the healthcare decisions of individuals and organizations and the behavioral effects of those decisions;
  • analyzing the effects of organizational changes on the delivery, cost and quality of care and on the willingness of competing organizations to serve diverse population groups;
  • studying the economic burden of disease on different populations caused by disparities in access to care; and
  • evaluating the impact of health and health care workforce policy changes on patients’ health outcomes and on the entry of new professionals to the workforce.

Political scientists may furnish fresh insights into such areas as:

  • the politics of health reform, including the ways in which legislative battles over reform proposals are strategically framed and fought, and how political disagreements over policy implementation are addressed and resolved;
  • the respective roles of federal and state government in health reform, including regulation of the financing and delivery of care;
  • the role of public opinion in shaping policy formulation;
  • the balance of power among major players that may shift as a result of changing policies;
  • the influence that interest groups and the media exert over health policy decisions; and
  • the political and social forces that empower and mobilize communities to address health problems.

Sociologists may contribute to the policy analysis and debate by:

  • analyzing the social and cultural factors that impede the ability of diverse population subgroups to enroll in health insurance programs and to obtain needed health care;
  • increasing our understanding of the effects of changes in the structure and organization of the health and health care delivery system;
  • assessing the impact of the changing roles and functions of health and health care providers;
  • studying the role of social networks in improving health decision making through information exchange and patient empowerment;
  • providing a framework for understanding how social movements affect the nation’s health; and
  • expanding our knowledge of the socioeconomic and cultural determinants of health.

The interplay among all three disciplines, when brought to bear on any single issue, results in a rich, multidisciplinary perspective that enhances problem definition and resolution. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) established the Scholars in Health Policy Research program in 1992 to help young scholars from the disciplines of sociology, economics and political science combine their expertise in order to improve future health policy in the U.S. It is part of RWJF’s rich history of programs that reside in the Human Capital Portfolio. The Portfolio seeks to invest in inspired, innovative, diverse people to help solve the nation’s challenges in health and health care.