Leader’s Voice: Jina DCruz

We are excited to present our conversation with Jina DCruz.

Jina is a public health expert working as the Lead Health Scientist at the CDC and is also an adjunct faculty in US and India. She works at the intersection of behaviour sciences, data science and technology to improve health for all.

In this conversation, Jina talks about her journey and thoughts on the future of public health and provides advice for data enthusiasts who wish to start a career in this field.

SDD: You are a public health expert with a myriad of experience in public health and educational excellence in sociology, behavioural sciences and public health. What inspired you to choose this field?

They say it’s rare to find what you love (passion) and what you do (profession) to make a positive difference in the world (purpose) in one thing. I am one of those lucky few who were able to find it in public health. It helps me use the unique blend of skillsets that I bring to the table. It also challenges me to keep learning new skills, tools, and techniques. I joke that I am a perpetual student, but really every public health practitioner is on a lifelong learning journey. The scope and scale of public health also is very fascinating to me because it literally covers everything that keeps us alive and help us live a healthy, and happy life. Public health is safe housing environment, food security, clean air, education, road safety, suicide prevention, climate health – all of these fall under the purview of public health. It is often said that when public health works it’s invisible, because it’s almost always preventing something bad from happening (like an epidemic) or promoting something that you take for granted (like sidewalks for physical activity). Recently, WHO celebrated 75 years of improving health and if we look at all the accomplishments, we can see the achievements over these decades span how we all live, learn, work, and play and our quality of well-being. I have seen firsthand of how much of a difference simple public health interventions can make in individual’s lives as well as communities health across the globe. I am always humbled to be part of this larger public health ecosystem that works quietly with limited resources, but changes each of our lives every single day. It is also a domain where you can influence at multiple levels- individual, population, societal, economic, etc. Also, I have always been sort of jack of all trades type of person, so the diversity of the work and the scale of its impact drew me to public health and keeps me going. Every day brings a new challenge, and I love it.

SDD: Post-pandemic, people worldwide, children and adults alike, are struggling with various mental health issues. What are your thoughts on the future of public health in the mental health space? Can the use of technology help in implementing policies at scale?

Mental health issues were always an understudied and under-discussed issue. Post-pandemic, it has morphed into a pressure cooker situation, where many people have experienced increased levels of anxiety, depression, and stress due to social isolation, economic uncertainty, and fear of the virus. WHO had reported a global increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression by 25% in the first year of the pandemic–which is about 1 in 4 people.. Do note these are only based on the reported cases and as we know mental health issues tend to be under reported. We likely wont know the breadth and impact until later when we have had more systematic studies and time to assess the long term effects. As we move forward, it is essential to address the long-term impact of the pandemic on mental health and well-being.

Technology will have a huge role in bringing policies and solutions at scale to alleviate the burden. Telehealth and digital mental health interventions have indeed become more widespread now and provide flexibility to both the provider and patient. These technologies can help to bridge gaps in access to care and improve the overall quality of mental health services. For example, virtual reality therapy and smartphone apps for mental health have shown promise in treating conditions such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Gamification of mental and emotional health tools have also been seen increasingly as a way to reach teens and children who had been hugely impacted. Technology has enabled the creation of online support groups, where people can connect with others who are going through similar experiences. These groups can provide a sense of community and support, which can be beneficial for mental health. Wearable technology like smartwatches and fitness trackers can monitor physical indicators of stress, anxiety, and depression. This information can be used to identify patterns and provide insights into an individual’s mental health. However, all these solutions must be under strict governance policies where the design and implementation is done with responsible, ethical, and person centered tech.

SDD: Your blog at jinadcruz.com shares curated public health stories every week. What inspired you to start this blog?

I honestly started it as a quick shortcut to bookmarking the public health stories that interested me. But as I did it regularly, I had folks reaching out to me, expressing their appreciation for keeping up the list. It also helped build connections within the public health community interested in meaningful conversations around public health and advances around the discipline. And I love talking about public health and sharing stories. Now it has also evolved into my modest attempt at making this critical, but often invisible stories more visible. I hope to expand into reflections, critique, and conversations about the intersection of public health, data, and technology in the future.

SDD: What advice do you have for a data enthusiast who wishes to specialize in public health informatics?

Public health is a multidisciplinary team sport and informatics and data science workforce especially during COVID-19 has proven to be a critical need. Public health informatics is really an art and science– helping to get the right data, at the right time, to the right people to make right decisions. So data skillsets are now like the swiss army knife in a public health informatician’s toolbox. You are always interfacing with data and its contextual understanding when working in public health informatics. For anyone interested in public health who comes with a technical background, I’d recommend gaining some domain experience and there are so many opportunities available now–in research, academia, non-profits, consulting or at your local or national public health organizations. For those already with a public health or clinical background, I’d recommend training in applied public health informatics or data science. I came from the latter background and was looking for opportunities that’d help me work with public health and technology simultaneously. I was fortunate enough to be accepted to the CDC Public Health Informatics Fellowship, and it was truly one of the most transformational applied training experiences I have ever had. There are many pathways, including massive open online courses that offer specialized training in public health informatics and you can always work on specializing in something that you are interested in. For example, I wanted to get more experience and expertise in data visualization and was able to find so many trainings and resources readily available in the web that set me off to a good start. I am also happy to talk to anyone who is really interested in pursuing this path. We always need more people.

SDD: What inspires you every day?

Close to a decade and a half back,I was part of a 4 member team which had to study a unique boat intervention that works toward ensuring improved access to health and basic education for river islands called chaporis in the Brahmaputra River. The chapori residents rely heavily on the river for their livelihoods, yet these geographically isolated islands also leave the inhabitants susceptible to devastating monsoon floods and rapid erosion, which frequently claim crops, homes, livestock, and often lives. Most of the chapori residents live a life of almost total isolation, as if they are excommunicated from the rest of the world. These islands dont exist in any maps because of the annual displacement due to floods. I remember our voyage on the boat, aptly called “Akha”, or hope in Assamese, which has become the primary source of health care for these islanders. Akha is one of the more than a dozen boats which carry medical personnel, emergency and preventive medicines to these islands. Some of them even have a full fledged surgical theatre. These boats are a public-private partnership, and made a difference to so many lives in those river islands. There were countless individuals who made the whole enterprise a success– right from the community health workers, the non profit team, the doctors, nurses, and other health personnel. This experience was an epiphanic life lesson that solidified my purpose in public health.

Over the course of my years working in public health, I have seen this happening in multiple settings all across the world– the power of people and partnerships. I never cease to be amazed by the thousands of faceless, nameless public health professionals working in dire conditions in many parts of the world, without praise,and fanfare to change the lives of the most vulnerable and those in need. I am just grateful to be a small part of this phenomenal community, which inspires me daily!

Disclaimer: Posts and opinions are author’s own and do not reflect the views of her employer.