Q & A with New Board Member Leah Devlin

Leah Devlin, D.D.S., M.P.H., has been elected to the CDC Foundation board of directors. Devlin is professor of the practice of health policy and management at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. Devlin has a long history of leadership in health issues in the state of North Carolina. She was State Health Director from 2001 to 2009 and previously was deputy state health director and health director for Wake County.

What led you to get involved with public health?

I was in dental school when I learned about the population-based approach that public health provides. I was interested in the bigger impact that you can make in public health, so I went to the school of public health after I got my dental degree.

What inspired you to get involved with the CDC Foundation?

I knew about the CDC Foundation’s work through my years as a local health and state health director, and I valued the notion that a nimble partner with a governmental agency is important in today’s environment. We actually created a foundation in the North Carolina Division of Public Health that parallels how the CDC Foundation works – we used some of the CDC Foundation’s best practices when we created our own foundation. I value very much the partnership that CDC has with the CDC Foundation and the assets that each brings to the table – it’s a very exciting model. 

I was nominated for the board of directors because of my experience as a public health practitioner. As the first local or state health director to serve on the Board, I am bringing that new connectivity to the board. I look forward to being a part of the Foundation’s work going forward.

From your perspective in the state health department why do you think CDC is important to our nation?

CDC is the flagship for the public health system. If you think of public health as a three legged stool, we have the federal leg, the state leg and the local leg. You have to have all three to pull together a public health system. CDC is able to provide expertise of the highest quality in very specialized areas, not just for the states and nation, but for countries all over the world. CDC is an incredibly important institution and we need to make sure that it is as well supported as it can be.

What is the role of public/private partnerships in improving health?

If we’re going to improve health outcomes, we have to deal with the symptoms of some structural problems in our society – whether its education, poverty, access to prevention services and healthcare, or other issues. We need to get our partners to the table who can influence some of these fundamental problems. Business leaders, for example, have an enormous stake in healthy communities because they are drawing their workforces from that community. They also have assets that they can bring to the table. The media and other communication partners are valuable to get the word out about how individuals and communities can stay healthy. We need a broad range of partners to help us address health disparities, to help us reach out to and work with different groups with diverse cultures, expectations and circumstances. Government can be the backbone of these partnerships, but it has never intended to be the “be all end all.” Government is here to provide capacities, the backbone and often the data to describe the scope of the problem. Organizations like the CDC Foundation are important catalysts, helping to make connections and bring diverse partners to the table. 

What do you think is the biggest issue/challenge facing public health today?

We face a tsunami of chronic disease. If we don’t find a way to reduce obesity in this country, and the impact it has on over 70 diseases and conditions, we’re not going to be able to improve health or control healthcare costs. This is also an important economic issue. How are businesses going to function with employees who are not well? How will communities and states with high obesity rates going to deal with escalating healthcare costs ? The chronic disease issue is paramount, and the risk factor that we have not yet begun to address is obesity.

What are you looking forward to with your new role on the board of the CDC Foundation?

I think that the CDC Foundation’s ability to engage corporate and philanthropic leaders in public health and the work of CDC is a critical. The Foundation can help demonstrate the value of CDC and its role in protecting health, developing global relations and improving economic development to private-sector leaders and organizations in language and through channels that resonate with these organizations. There can’t be a better partner to take that important message to people who are in positions to support CDC and CDC’s capacity to continue to be a leader in the nation and the world. The work that the Foundation does in that regard is unparalleled – it’s unique and critical and I’m looking forward to being a part of that.

Leah Devlin, DDS, MPH, is professor of the practice of health policy and management at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health.