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June 6, 2014

Thoughts from my Keeneland Conference keynote

Recently, I was fortunate enough to visit Lexington, Kentucky for several days—not for equine entertainment, but for the next best thing. I was there to present the keynote address at the 2014 Keeneland Conference, an annual event hosted by the National Coordinating Center for Public Health Services Systems Research (PHSSR). This year, the theme was “building the evidence base for public health practice and policy”—a topic that’s of great interest to me.

In my speech, I made a very simple appeal: develop a joint agenda with the PHSSR community and public health informatics. After all, there’s no reason why the informatics community in public health shouldn’t be working to help researchers do their jobs. Informatics, when done well, provides valuable information that can help public health programs function better, more efficiently, and more effectively.

At its heart, public health is a system—a fact that took almost a decade to sink in for me once I started in the public health field. As I mentioned in my speech, I was so focused on individual components of public health in my early years at the CDC that I didn’t step back and see the big picture. Once I did, I was amazed that I’d ever missed it. Public health agencies and programs so often work in isolation that they don’t notice duplicated efforts or overlapping work areas. How streamlined we could make ourselves if we broke down the barriers in our work and shared our practices and information!   

A video of my keynote will be posted soon.  If you have a moment (or an hour) to watch it, you may find it useful. For now, though, I encourage you to consider the question with which I ended my presentation: Are we in public health so federated that we can’t be a system? Do we have an opportunity to take the components of public health out of their isolated siloes and turn them into a working system?  Can we back in the data needed to support more timely and continuous evaluation of the impact of our programs?

Personally, I see cross-jurisdictional collaboration and knowledge sharing as essential components to the future success of public health, and I hope to see practices emerge that acknowledge and embrace the interlocking parts that make up the public health system.

David A. Ross, ScD

President/CEO of the Task Force for Global Health, former director of PHII