Weaving together research, education, and practice, Virginia Tech faculty and community members are developing a consortium focused on the transformative concept of whole health. 

“A whole health approach changes the paradigm from 'what is the matter with you' to 'what matters to you,'” Karen Roberto, University Distinguished Professor and executive director of the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment (ISCE), said during a gathering last month.

Led by the group’s chair, Tina Savla, professor of human development and family science, 60 invited attendees from higher education, government agencies, and industry gathered into groups to discuss questions aimed to guide the creation of the university Whole Health Consortium. 

The emergent field of whole health requires committed transdisciplinary collaborations that integrate old and newly established methodologies as well as multisystem interactions and participant engagement. 

In many ways, it echoes the aim of Virginia Tech’s Health Frontier, which is one of four university Research Frontiers. The Health Frontier is working to change the paradigm from a focus on disease and symptoms to one of whole health, integrating the intersections of animal, environment, and human health and building in communities and systems to empower multifaceted well-being.

Contributing to this paradigm shift is the ultimate goal of the Whole Health Consortium, which will be housed in ISCE. 

To guide its creation, the group focused on four questions: what would entice participation, what resources and infrastructure would be necessary to support their participation, what the membership structure should look like, and how to measure success. Included in the discussions were faculty from Virginia Tech and Radford University and representatives from community organizations such as the New River Valley Regional Commission, the Virginia Department of Health, Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, the Salem Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and Carilion Clinic. 

“I am pleased to see representatives from community organizations, medical centers, and universities here today,” Dan Sui, senior vice president and chief research and innovation officer, said in his opening remarks. “It is only through this kind of collaboration that we can truly make a difference locally and globally.”

Last fall, Roberto tasked an interdisciplinary working group with determining how Virginia Tech, as a leading land-grant research university, could integrate a range of expertise to revolutionize systems, research, practices, and policies that affect the health and well-being of individuals and communities. From that work, the idea for a Whole Health Consortium emerged and the accompanying  discussion.

“I was pleasantly surprised at the turnout,” said Julie Gerdes, assistant professor of technical and professional writing and a working group member who was one of the day’s facilitators. “There was a positive reception to our current progress, and everyone was very willing to participate.”

Guests are shown mingling at a reception sponsored by the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment.
At a reception sponsored by the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment, faculty who participated in the Whole Health Consortium discussion enjoyed some networking. Photo by Felicia Spencer for Virginia Tech.

The event provided an opportunity to network with other researchers and community stakeholders interested in health and well-being. 

“I thought it was fantastic. I loved how we broke down into groups and discussed specific questions. It was nice getting to know others who are interested in this approach,” said Angela Scarpa, professor of psychology and founder of the Virginia Tech Autism Clinic.

The community members who attended the event are vital to the success of the consortium and were actively engaged in the discussions. 

“It’s wonderful to have Virginia Tech and its myriad of resources and experts shining light on community well-being,” said Holly Lesko, program director with the New River Valley Regional Commission. “Key to success, I believe, will be a true integration of this work in the community to assess assets and strengths as well as needs to build an ecosystem of wellness across our region.”

Immediately following the Whole Health Consortium discussions, the participants, as well as faculty from across Virginia Tech, attended the ISCE’s Spring Forum, which focused on opportunities for behavioral and social sciences research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It featured a presentation from acting director of the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences research at NIH, Christine Hunter, and emphasized the importance of inclusive, integrative, transdisciplinary research, which is integral to leading the whole health paradigm shift.

Information on the Whole Health Consortium’s official launch is expected to be available in August. Persons interested in joining the consortium are encouraged to complete an online information form.

Written by Felicia Spencer