When Corey Wiggins, MSPH, Ph.D., enrolled in the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Education’s Health Education/Health Promotion doctoral program in 2006, he knew wanted to make a difference in his home state of Mississippi.

But back during his undergraduate years, Wiggins dreamed of becoming a physician, he says. He majored in biology at Alcorn State University in Mississippi and made plans to apply to medical school. As his senior year approached, however, he developed an interest in public health, so he accepted a Kaiser Family Foundation Barbara Jordan Health Policy Fellowship in Washington D.C., in 2004.

Dr. Corey Wiggins

Focus on Health Promotion

During the fellowship, Wiggins says he learned about the social factors and policies that impact health outcomes in the United States. When the fellowship ended, he changed his career focus from medicine to health policy and promotion.

“It opened my eyes up to the different ways to contribute to the work of creating healthy communities and understanding that I could do it and contribute more than by just being a physician,” he says. “As a physician, I could impact the health of one patient at a time, but if I could work in public health and health policy, I could help impact the health of communities and thousands or millions of people at one time.”

So, after earning his master’s degree in public health at UAB in 2005, Wiggins applied to the UAB School of Education’s Health Education/Health Promotion doctoral degree program. The program turned out to be a good fit. The coursework, he says, gave him a deep understanding of various health interventions, and, over time, he began thinking of policy as an intervention.

“So now I take what I learned from the Ph.D., program and think about how to design programs and develop interventions and layer them onto different policy intervention types of approaches in order to change and shape healthy communities.”

After earning his doctorate in 2011, he worked for the Mississippi State Legislature and in academia until 2014 when he took the reigns as director of the Hope Policy Institute.

Influencing Policies

The Hope Policy Institute, headquartered in Jackson, Miss., is a nonprofit organization that works to influence policies that affect the allocation of resources and facilitates an environment to ensure that all people prosper, he says. The Institute advocates for workforce development, and affordable housing and healthcare in the MidSouth region of the country that includes Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee.

The Institute is the policy division of HOPE, which consists of the Hope Enterprise Corp., and the Hope Credit Union. Through its credit union, HOPE strives to bring low-wealth citizens into the financial mainstream, makes loans toward the expansion and upgrade of rural hospitals and community health centers, and establishes programs to help residents in towns with no grocery stores to access fresh fruits and vegetables.

“For me, when I think about our work, I think of health not only in the physical sense, but also as it relates to access to financial institutions, access to good education systems and all of these other things that we think of as social determinants.”

Wiggins recalls meeting a worried mother at a forum on the Affordable Care Act several years ago. She had a son in junior college and said that paying for health insurance for herself and her son had been a struggle. Unfortunately, says Wiggins, she did not qualify for an ACA subsidy.

“To see a mother’s concern for her child, and trying to balance the concern for him to do well in school and be healthy with the financial impact of making it happen is something that has stuck with me,” he says.

“Sometimes people think of policy advocacy as something that’s very abstract,” says Wiggins, “but for the people I work with every day, this team, this is something that’s very real for us.”