Leadership Trailblazer Spotlight: Anne Zink, Chief Medical Officer of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services

March 16, 2022 | ASTHO Staff

Public health has a rich history of women in leadership. Are there any figures who inspire you most?

So many. Public health nurses in Alaska going to remote villages to help slow tuberculosis and really bring public health to those communities. Elizabeth Peratovich—an Alaska Native leader who helped pass the first U.S. anti-discrimination act of 1945. Megan Ranney—another doctor who chose to swim upstream and study gun violence as a health issue and continues to do amazing work addressing healthcare and public health concerns. And I have to list former SHO Joneigh Khaldun (alumni–MI) for her early work in public health and healthcare, equity work, and her balance of life and work.

How have you been able to elevate other women in public health?

I try to always say yes to any speaking event or engagement when it comes to students’ or women’s leadership groups.  I think that supporting the next generation of public health leaders is paramount to the future of our field.

Who has been most supportive of you in your leadership journey?

Two people rise to the top: My predecessor Jay Butler (alumni–AK) and our public health director Heidi Hedberg.

Jay was the one who said yes to talking to me when he had no idea who I was. He was open and kind about his path and journey, he pulled me in, and he continues to be an amazing mentor. I will never forget the night I was driving home from a flight and he called me and talked to me for an hour. At the end he told me he kept coming up with things to talk about as he knew I had an hour drive home and wanted to make sure that, after not sleeping all of those days, I would make it home safely. His personal and professional kindness has been extraordinary.

The other leader is my public health director Heidi Hedberg. That woman is phenomenal. She can get more done than an army of people, always puts family first, helps to balance the world’s struggles, is a sounding board, and has a heart of gold. We have such different skill sets, but she is the work ying to my yang and I don’t know what I would do without her!

Describe one of the most meaningful accomplishments of your career.

At this point in the pandemic, we have lost no public health powers, our team is still together, and we rank third in the country in lowest deaths per capita in a state that is fiercely independent, huge, and immensely diverse—and that often felt completely forgotten by the world during the first months of the pandemic.

The other is the small wins with people. The angry political adversary who now texts regularly in a friendly way as we find common ground, the patient who is inspired to lose 100 pounds because of a conversation and the support systems in place, or the former drug addict who now runs a peer-to-peer support that comes to the ED to meet patients, got his felony pardoned, and is changing his community.

The public health workforce has been under immense stress. Who—or what—motivates you to persevere through tough times?

The people I work with and for. The public health team is driven, kind, thoughtful, resilient, and it’s hard to not put your everything into serving them. And then the individual Alaskans. An attending physician once told me: Do what is right for the patient and the rest is noise.  It is the people we serve who are the motivation. The rest is really noise.