Pathy’s Account of Public Health Policy
By Vidhya Pathy, Associate Editor
Vatsala Pathy has over two decades of experience in health policy and public health. She was previously the director of the Colorado State Innovation Model, founder and Managing Director of Rootstock Solutions LLC (a healthcare consulting firm), a senior program officer at The Colorado Health Foundation, an operating board member of Bonfils Blood Center, and a program officer at the CDC Foundation, where she served as a steward and manager of a number of national and international public health projects. In addition, she has extensive experience in state health policy research and program implementation with former Colorado Governor Roy Romer, the Georgia Health Policy Center, and Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of Colorado. She is currently both a Senior Advisor to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation and a board member for both the World Denver and Bell Policy Centers.
Vidhya Pathy: Why are you interested in public health?
Vatsala Pathy: Public health is one of the most important, yet underappreciated aspects of modern life. Until fairly recently, we couldn’t take clean water for granted. Now, we turn on our tap and don’t fear contamination. Similarly, with the advent of antibiotics, we have been able to almost eliminate certain bacterial illnesses. While people don’t always appreciate its importance, it has significantly impacted longevity and good health.
Vidhya: Why does public health matter?
Vatsala: There are so many dimensions to public health: safety, environment, chronic disease, and infectious disease, just to name a few. Each of these impact our lives every day! Imagine a society where people die from preventable illnesses or get sick due to contaminants in the air; in the United States, we are so lucky to have clean air to breathe and people who help track disease outbreaks in order to manage their spreading. I feel that public health is so important because it can have a huge impact on a large segment of society. For poor residents of slums in the developing world, simple public health interventions can be transformative. These efforts don’t necessarily require a lot of funding or long term research — what they require is a commitment to problem-solving, attention to detail, and an understanding of the connection between disease and society.
Vidhya: Tell me about your most memorable public health experience.
Vatsala: I still remember learning about multidrug resistant tuberculosis when I worked with the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At the time, the most powerful TB drugs were no longer working. People were dying. There were researchers who were working on how best to control the administration of TB medicines as a way to maximize their impact. These simple solutions — dispensing medications and ensuring that patients were taking them as indicated — had a significant impact on curbing drug resistance.
Vidhya: What are you working on now?
Vatsala: I work on a variety of health policy and public health issues at both the federal and state levels. I am excited that increasingly there is a greater focus on social determinants of health, or how we can start making links between the health care delivery system and public health. Many committed professionals are thinking about how individuals, especially the poor and underserved, can get their health needs met across the many systems (for instance, criminal justice, hospitals, and homeless shelters).
Vidhya: Do you feel that public health intersects with other parts of your life? If so, how?
Vatsala: I see public health in my life almost every day — when I turn on the tap, when I fasten my seat belt in the car, when I buy groceries, and when I get my children vaccinated for preventable diseases. The public health system is chronically under-funded. Until there is a crisis — a foodborne disease outbreak, a chemical spill, or an epidemic of a preventable disease — as a society, we don’t prioritize public health. I believe that all of us can play an important role in improving the public health of our society by first understanding the importance of the issues at hand and then advocating for more funding to support public health infrastructure.