New ASTHO President Puts Emphasis on Data Modernization

Anne Zink, M.D., the new president of the Association of State and Territorial Officials (ASTHO), says she plans to focus her presidency on improving health information systems to empower the public, healthcare providers, and the public health workforce.

ASTHO is the national nonprofit organization representing the public health agencies of the United States, the U.S. territories and Freely Associated States, and Washington, D.C., as well as the more than 100,000 public health professionals these agencies employ.

Zink, who also holds the position of chief medical officer for the Alaska Department of Health (ADOH), is taking the reins from Nirav D. Shah, M.D., J.D., director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, who has held the position since January 2021. Zink is the 80th president on the organization’s 80th anniversary year.

According to ASTHO, Zink’s 16 years of experience in emergency medicine made her acutely aware of the consequences public policy has on the health of the individual, which motivated her to embrace the opportunity to work in public health. Prior to her role at ADOH, she worked at the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center, where she served as the emergency department medical director (2010-2018) and on the Board of Trustees (2012-2018). In addition, she helped create the High-Utilizer Mat-Su (HUMS) program, which aims to improve patient health and cost savings for some of the state’s most vulnerable patients.

“As a practicing emergency medicine physician who had the honor of serving our state through the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear we must do everything to ensure our systems put the people we serve at the center of all our work, and our tremendous public health and healthcare workforces deserve the basic tools, data, and funding to do the jobs they have been called to do,” Zink said in a statement.

She has helped push for state and federal policy changes, including work on information sharing, addressing the opioid epidemic, addressing workplace violence, and mental healthcare. In her time as Alaska’s chief medical officer, she has been recognized locally and nationally as a collaborative leader for her partnership with Alaska’s federally recognized tribes, industry partners, schools, municipalities, and healthcare.

In a Q&A on ASTHO’s website, Zink was asked if she could guarantee progress in one are of public health as ASTHO’s president, what would it be?

“For me, that would be braiding together healthcare and public health—they are two sides of the same coin. They are the individual and the community; the tree and the forest. Years ago, they started to separate, and I think we can do much more for health if we partner together across public health and healthcare,” she said. There are two main ways I want to do that. The first is by making sure we have strong bidirectional information sharing between public health, public health centers, and healthcare. Data not only is how we track diseases, it is how we create change. And I think it’s going to be fundamental for public health to not only be a part of, but to lead that change.”

The second way, she added, is in payment. “Public health has been funded in starts and stops while the engine of healthcare has been these large payment systems, like CMS and insurance. We must find ways to create sustainable funding for public health, and that will include working with healthcare systems. When we’re able to pay for prevention and move upstream, we decrease costs and better serve the public.”

Asked to elaborate on the importance of data modernization, Zink said it’s critical that our public health officials understand the basics of how data is moved and transferred in order to make data-informed decisions. “Ask your team, how did you get that data? Where does that come from? What is the connection? You don’t have to be an IT person to understand data. Having a basic, fundamental understanding of data is critical to every public health official,” she said. “Secondly, if we know that getting information to CDC or to frontline healthcare providers will make a difference in the population’s overall health, then we need to find a way to do that. We need to think of data not just in terms of public health use but also about how it can be used more broadly improve people’s lives. Data helps us to understand the world around us, so we need to invest in it.”

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