You Can’t Fix What You Can’t Count: Contagious Conversations Podcast Explores Data and Public Health


As the pandemic continues, we are inundated daily with COVID-19 data and statistics. It has become a common soundbite in our daily lives. But why is data so important in public health, and how should we evolve our data systems to provide real-time information to help inform decision-making? We explore these and other questions in our latest Contagious Conversations podcast episode.

Daniel Jernigan, MD, MPH, deputy director for public health science and surveillance at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), discusses the importance of data as our latest guest on Contagious Conversations. For more than 25 years during his career at CDC, Dr. Jernigan has led the agency’s responses to dozens of contagious disease outbreaks and flu pandemics in the United States and around the world.

In this podcast episode, Dr. Jernigan highlights the importance of data modernization and its impact on public health. Dr. Jernigan also discusses the Lights, Camera, Action National Summit Series convened by public health partners, including the CDC Foundation, to advance recommendations for a modernized U.S. public health system. In the most recent summit, the discussion centered on data solutions that assure real-time actionable intelligence that people, public health, communities and the private sector can use to prevent disease, promote wellness and assure prosperity, creating an interoperable and modern data and technology infrastructure. A theme that surfaced during the summit was that technology needs to be addressed alongside non-technical issues such as policies, data sharing, collaboration, resources and transparency to unleash the power of the technologies. In this episode of the podcast, Dr. Jernigan explains why we need this infrastructure to bring public health into our modern data ecosystem.

In his current CDC role, Dr. Jernigan provides leadership for CDC’s Data Modernization Initiative, a multi-year, billion-plus dollar effort to modernize core data and surveillance infrastructure across the federal and state public health landscape. According to CDC, this initiative is not just about technology, but also about putting the right people, processes and policies in place to help us solve problems before they happen and reduce the harm when problems do arise.

“Data is the currency of public health,” Dr. Jernigan said. “You can’t fix what you can’t count. In order for you to know what the problem is, you need to enumerate it and quantify it. And once you have that information, then you know whether things are getting worse or getting better.” 

I encourage everyone to listen to this episode and learn more about the vital importance of the currency of public health.

Photo of Brandon Talley
Brandon Talley, MPH, is the vice president for noninfectious disease programs for the CDC Foundation.