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Public Health Thank You Day Interview Series: Lilly Kan, MPH, Public Health Data Improvement Project Director

In honor of Public Health Thank You Day, Research!America is spotlighting public health professionals who are working to mitigate disasters, prevent disease, and advocate for public health legislation that results in equitable health solutions for communities across the country. 

Lilly Kan, MPH, Project Director of Public Health Data Improvement at The Pew Charitable Trusts, discusses why high-quality, timely, and accessible public health information is so important to people’s health and well-being. 

How did you become interested in public health? 

Shortly after college, a research fellowship at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was an opportunity for me to pursue my interests in basic science research. While I really loved the experience, I realized I was too much of a people person to spend all day in a lab. Before that point, I only knew one person who had an MPH, but I heard talks from a few public health speakers who came to the NIH. Through those exposures, I realized that public health was a path that I wanted to explore. 

What does it mean to work in public health data improvement? 

In my current role, I am interested in exploring and improving how public health agencies access, analyze, and take action on timely and granular data to improve the health of our communities. In order to make progress, public health agencies must be able to get those data, understand what the data indicate about the health and well-being of their communities, and inform interventions to improve community health outcomes. 

What is a typical day for you? 

A typical day involves a lot of meetings and emails, reading and absorbing information and thinking critically about it, and engaging with different people to understand the implication of that information upon our work. Public health requires an all-hands-on-deck team effort. There are a lot of needs – and there is a lot of information about those needs – which require a lot of people. To process that information, I often meet and exchange with critical teammates, partners, and experts to understand and determine how to act in response. 

I have worked with a wide variety of partners across my professional experiences. Public health agencies are a critical partner – whether health department heads, epidemiologists, immunization program managers, or more. My team and I also work with federal agencies and community organizations when opportunities arise. 

How has your role and the role of public health changed over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic? 

There has been more attention on both public health and public health data. Before the pandemic, we all made a lot of assumptions about how quickly data is shared and used. While that’s true in other sectors, a lack of resources in public health improvement – especially for governmental organizations – means that data were often incomplete, not shared quickly enough, or not accessible in a timely manner. Longstanding challenges for the field were highlighted.  

There is increased attention now to how to address those challenges and how to be in a better position for future public health threats. 

How do you build trust/maintain relationships with the different groups and people you work with? 

Part of why we have so many calls and emails on a weekly basis is to keep these lines of communication open. Each meeting and email are all about sharing updates about the work that is happening that may be of interest, or inform, or impact the work that our partners might be doing. It has also always been helpful to me to hear from partners about what is happening in the field that we should be aware of so that all our efforts complement each other. 

Relationships are also built by meeting in person for a coffee when the opportunity arises. Beyond the big challenges we’re facing together, there is a group of real faces and individuals to get to know. 

Do you incorporate a health equity approach or specific initiatives that advance health equity? If so, how? 

Health equity is a core component of how I and my team think about our work. We recognize that different people in communities and populations are impacted differently. There are fundamental factors about our health system that drive some inequities in how people have access to services and programs that benefit their health and well-being.  

We need the right information to know how to think about these challenges and where to target our work to improve the system. It is a challenge without sufficient data. A big part of public health data improvement is making sure public health agencies can access high-quality, complete information. 

Where do you see the greatest need for improvements? 

Right now, we still have the benefit of a lot of attention and available resources to address the challenges that the public health system has faced. Moving forward, it will be a challenge to maintain that momentum and that investment in resources. This can’t be a one-time investment. It needs to be an ongoing level of support.  

As a public health community, we need to continue to highlight the work that lies ahead and not forget about what we’ve all just gone through. Then we will be in a better position when the next threat comes. 

Having been part of the H1N1 influenza pandemic response and part of the COVID-19 response, it is remarkable to see both the improvements and the challenges that remain. While the COVID vaccination rollout was much more complex to pull off, we still faced under-vaccination in certain communities. 

What role can the public play to strengthen the future of public health? What do you want the public to know? 

It is important for the public to understand the importance and the value of sharing information about themselves. Understandably, there are a lot of concerns around data privacy, security, and confidentiality. Those concerns absolutely must be addressed with appropriate measures. 

Even as security measures are improved and continue to require improvement, there can be a way for people to be able to share their information safely, in a way that ultimately benefits our understanding of population health. 

Is there anything about your job or field that you wish more people understood or anything else you would like to mention that we didn’t cover? 

I’ve never had a boring day since I’ve started working in public health. While it can be challenging – since the problems are so big – it is very rewarding to be part of making improvements in the public field. I cheer on everyone considering a career in public health!