4 Lessons From Public Health Expert Anthony Fauci, MD

Between the global COVID-19 pandemic, an economic recession and renewed conversations about inequity across the country, the last year has shown us that the state of public health will inevitably be reflected inside hospital and health system walls. That is why it is so crucial for leaders within the healthcare system to understand how the health of a community impacts care utilization and outcomes and to collaborate with public health experts on improvement efforts.

This week, we celebrate National Public Health Week. According to the American Public Health Association, this time of the year is all about recognizing the contributions of public health and highlighting issues that are important to improving our nation. What better way to celebrate National Public Health Week than to reflect on the lessons learned from one of the most respected public health officials in the country?

Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, recently spoke with ACHE President and CEO Deborah J. Bowen, FACHE, CAE, during the 2021 Congress on Healthcare Leadership. Here are a few takeaways from that fireside chat:

On the COVID-19 Pandemic and Vaccine Rollout: Thanks to the availability of several highly efficacious vaccines, our country is in a much better place now than it was even a few months ago. “The vaccine platform technologies and the immunogen design that we’ve been able to [create] have allowed us … to develop a vaccine infinitely faster than we’ve ever been able to,” says Fauci, who credits the creation of a successful vaccine to the collaboration of government agencies, pharmaceutical companies and academic researchers.

That said, there are still obstacles to overcome, including vaccine hesitancy. On this topic, Fauci reminds leaders that people who have concerns about safety or are cautious when it comes to vaccines and federally run medical programs are not a monolithic group, saying, “You don’t want to blow people off who are hesitant. You want to try and find out why they’re hesitant and respect the fact that they are, and then try to explain to them each of the points that bothers them.”   

On Lessons Learned about Public Health: Even though the COVID-19 pandemic has been the focus for nearly everyone in healthcare during the last year, having a strong public health system isn’t only important during a health crisis. To address the gaps in the healthcare system and mitigate many of the challenges that arose throughout 2020, Fauci says the country must invest in public health infrastructure and technology, commit to manufacturing more vaccine ingredients and medical supplies such as PPE in the U.S., and avoid letting political divisiveness get in the way of collaborative public health efforts. Fauci also drove home the importance of expanding preventive care—including routine check-ups, mammograms and colonoscopies—to catch potentially chronic conditions early, improve overall health status, and prevent hospitalizations and deaths in the long-run.

On Reinforcing Public Trust: For any public health effort to succeed, the public must have trust in health officials and the information they are receiving. According to Fauci, building and maintaining trust all comes down to one crucial thing: “What you do, what you say … and the policy recommendations you make have to be based on evidence and data.” He added that leaders should never allow themselves to be pressured or influenced into taking any position that’s based on anything other than scientific data and scientific evidence. When it comes to educating the public, it’s also important to be able to explain the science and data supporting your decisions in a way that is accessible and easy to understand. This is particularly important with complex and ever-changing situations where the evidence and data evolves rapidly—if leaders are transparent about the information they are using to inform decision-making, the public may have fewer concerns about those leaders “flip-flopping,” and have more trust in the decision-making process. Fauci added, “Stick with the truth, not what people want to hear.”

On Resilience and Self-Care: Although Fauci admitted to not having had a day off in the last year, he still recognizes the importance and value of taking care of himself. In fact, Fauci makes time every single day for a three- to four-mile run to maintain his own physical and mental well-being. He also fully recognizes that challenges such as fatigue and burnout are more acute for care provides, saying, “We’ve got to somehow design our systems to allow for some relief for frontline healthcare workers.” According to him, our systems need a degree of flexibility and surge capacity, and that may mean bringing back retired clinicians or pulling healthcare professionals from other areas of the healthcare system. Ultimately, when healthcare leaders are in planning sessions and considering on-call schedules, the most important thing to keep in mind is that a pandemic is like a marathon, not a sprint—and we have to think about solutions with longevity and sustainability, not quick fixes.

Looking forward, Fauci expressed a sense of cautious optimism. “We’ve gone through, and still are in, the most difficult, historic experience of a pandemic in 102 years. And we are going to get through it,” he said. “But we still have a challenge, let’s make sure we don’t declare victory until it’s over—and it’s not over yet. We’ve come a long way together, let’s wind up ending this together.”

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