A Q&A with Anne Zink, ASTHO’s New President

September 13, 2022 | ASTHO Staff

ASTHO is thrilled to welcome Anne Zink, MD as our new president. Zink is a practicing emergency room physician and serves as the Chief Medical Officer for the Alaska Department of Health. In a conversation with ASTHO, she spoke about her hopes for the future of public health and her goals as president.

Congratulations on beginning your term as ASTHO’s president! What excites you most as you move into this role?

I’m excited to work with so many incredible people who are taking an upstream approach to improving health. I came into healthcare as an emergency medicine physician, but I quickly realized my desire to work on a broader scale. I got frustrated pulling people out of the river, so to speak, and felt like I was going to burnout.

Through my time in public health, it's been amazing to be able to move upstream and partner with others who can see the banks of the river and the bridges that are needed. Together, we can build and repair those bridges and improve the lives and well-being of the people we serve.

What’s your magic wand idea? If you could guarantee progress in one area 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.

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 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.

You touched on data above. Data modernization is at the heart of every conversation on the future of public health. How can ASTHO and its members move the needle here in the year ahead?

First and foremost, 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.

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.

We hear and see so much about public health being politicized in recent years. What advice would you give to leaders looking to change that narrative?

I would push back a little bit on the idea that public health shouldn’t be politicized. Public health and politics both come from the same word, and that’s “of the people.” We need to embrace that and realize that serving people is part of what we do. It becomes problematic when it becomes partisan, and that’s where public health officials have to be careful.

It’s much easier to avoid partisanship if we stay focused on the people we serve. I often get asked, what party are you? And I say, I’m the party of health. I’m here for one thing, and that’s the health and well-being of the people I serve. That is my job, and that is my role, and that’s my passion. I would encourage public health officials to embrace the fact that we serve the people and so do politicians, but make sure you keep your eye on the ball. And those are the people we serve, not a party.

Let’s wrap things up on a personal note. The COVID response made clear the need for public health professionals to stay supported and grounded outside of the workplace. What does that look like for you?

In college, I was a fine arts minor and an inorganic chemistry major. I learned about the importance of having negative space in art to be able to make a piece work. I would encourage health officers to find the negative space in their lives and use that space to take care of themselves. Give yourself space to do nothing and to have downtime. Wellness is not something that you can schedule into your life perfectly, and you can't yoga your way to not being burnt out.

I often say balance is like tree pose. You're always falling over, just hopefully not too far in any one direction at any one time. I find that balance through exercising outdoors, through my family, and in my friendships. My work relationships, my relationship with my husband and my kids, and my relationship with my friends are critically important.

Do you have any final thoughts?

I really am humbled by being in this position, and I feel like I'm standing on the shoulders of giants. I see myself as a very short carrier of a baton between many other people, and I want to just make sure I can move this baton as far as I can before I hand it off next year.

I also want to encourage state and island area health officials to reach out to me about conversations on how we can improve public health. Public health is only as great as all of us collectively working together.