In June 2009, just two months after the H1N1 flu virus was first detected, Nicole Lurie, M.D., M.S.P.H., was nominated as the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). From day one, she had to prepare the nation to respond to an impending public health threat.
“I have responsibility for getting the nation prepared for public health emergencies—whether naturally occurring disasters or man-made, as well as for helping it respond and recover,” Lurie said. “It’s a pretty significant undertaking.”
Lurie knows that much public health preparation has to happen at the community level. “The question,” she says, “is how the federal government can help make it happen nationally.” Her challenge is to find a combination of policies, regulations, programs, and educational opportunities that positively influence what happens on the ground. To do so, Lurie stresses the importance of having a clear focus and specific goals.
“Some things in my career have been more straightforward, and others much more challenging,” admits Lurie. One of her first experiences in preparedness was to assess California’s public health preparedness, a task which she expected to be straightforward but in practice presented a huge challenge: there was no mechanism or infrastructure in place to measure preparedness. She said, “We had to figure out where to start, and to ask and answer questions in order to build a framework for measurement.” Lurie credits her Clinical Scholars training for her ability to understand and choose an approach that was relevant to the situation: “At the end of the day, your strategy has to be effective on the ground and not just as a perfect academic exercise.”
The Clinical Scholars program has provided Lurie not only with the training and skills to translate good theory and research into practice, but also with another invaluable asset: a vast network of Clinical Scholars and alumni.
In the years just after completing the program, Lurie learned to utilize the network after a move to Minnesota with her husband, where she worked in the Minnesota Department of Health. “I was out there on my own, and to survive academically I had to reach out and stay connected to a network of people, so I started to reach out to the Clinical Scholars network. I was able to add something to my community in Minnesota and to draw support from all over the country.”
Lurie stayed connected to the network through her eight years with RAND Corporation. By the time she arrived at HHS, she knew she wanted to have a Clinical Scholar rotate through her office. But after just a few days on the job, she realized this wasn’t an option but a necessity. Lurie picked up the phone and, as she had so many times before, enlisted the help of her Clinical Scholar colleagues.
The program sent Adam Landman, a Clinical Scholar at Yale, who worked in Lurie’s office for three months to provide much-needed policy analysis. The reach of the network didn’t stop there; alumni from all over the country helped inform and support the H1N1 response. “One day it just occurred to me that there were all these Clinical Scholars touching this issue one way or another, and everybody had this core training and change-agent mission in common, yet had taken different paths that converged to address this one issue.” In keeping with her goal to have Clinical Scholars rotate through her office, Raina Merchant, from the University of Pennsylvania, followed Adam as the second Clinical Scholar to join Lurie’s team for a three- month rotation.
Lurie acknowledges that it’s not just the training and skills that set Clinical Scholars apart. “It’s the passion that we bring to the work—we come to the program with a commitment and a goal to do something significant. It was designed for people who want to change the world.”