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Director’s Corner—New Year, New Challenges, New Opportunities

Posted on by NCHS
Charles Rothwell, NCHS Director
Charles Rothwell, NCHS Director

Every year brings its own set of challenges, opportunities, and successes, and 2013 was certainly no exception.

Over the course of the year, a number of long-term leaders chose to retire. Center Director Dr. Edward Sondik; Stephanie Ventura, Chief of the Reproductive Statistics Branch; Marjorie Greenberg, Chief of the Classifications and Public Health Data Standards Staff; and Mary Moien, the Confidentiality Officer, were just some of the outstanding public health colleagues who stepped down after decades of service. During their tenures, each of them helped lead the Center into a statistical world increasingly complicated by privacy concerns, rapid technology shifts, and budget scrutiny. We, and the world of health statistics, thank them for their dedication and service.

Fortunately, our losses were offset by the arrival of new leadership perfectly suited for the day’s challenges. Dr. Kathryn Porter joined us as Director of the Division of Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys. A Captain in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and former Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer, Dr. Porter manages the ongoing National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), one of the Center’s most visible and successful programs.

We have been able to fill critical vacancies throughout the Center with outstanding and highly qualified young employees who will help make NCHS’s future bright. Part of my mission as director will be to make sure they are involved not only in their individual programs but in the direction of NCHS itself. My hope is that future directors will have as exceptional a staff as I have today.

I suppose that the less said about the government shutdown, the better. I must note, however, that it had a substantial impact on us. Interviewers could not collect data for the National Health Interview Survey. We could not collect vital statistics from the states. We could not publish reports, which created a sizable publishing backlog—one that, through the hard work and perseverance of the Office of Information Services, was cleared up by year’s end. Kudos to Division Director Tammy Stewart-Prather, Information Dissemination Staff Chief Sharon Ramirez, and Information Design and Publishing Staff Chief Kimberly Ross for their leadership in making sure we fulfilled our mission to disseminate the fruits of our research.

On the plus side, we had many successes of which we can be proud. We concluded the first Youth Fitness Examination Survey, part of the NHANES program, and published our report by the year’s end. Under the leadership of Dr. Jane Gentleman, the Director of the Division of Health Interview Statistics, we hosted the 15th Annual Interchange between NCHS and Statistics Canada (from whom we were lucky enough to lure Dr. Gentleman away). Many of our reports attracted widespread media attention, reinforcing the importance of our public health mission.

With 2013 behind us, we can now turn our attention to 2014. Frankly, I could not be more excited. Here, in no particular order, are five things that I am looking forward to this year.

  • National Conference on Health Statistics—Our biennial data users’ conference returns in August. I always relish the depth and breadth of the research presented and discussed in our scientific and poster sessions. Our 2012 conference was a resounding success. I expect our 2014 conference to meet or exceed it.
  • National Academies NHANES Workshop—The workshop’s full title is, “Guidelines for Returning Individual Results from Genomic Research Using Population-Based Banked Specimens,” a somewhat dry title for a vitally important topic. Since 1991, NHANES has been collecting and storing genetic specimens. Among other considerations, this has raised the question of whether, when, and for which biologic measures the results should be reported back to individual respondents. We developed an action plan for reporting individual results; however, because of potential costs and unintended consequences from respondents’ reactions, our Board of Scientific Counselors recommended gathering further input from a wide range of perspectives. The National Academies of Science is convening this workshop to fulfill that goal. We have implemented a moratorium on collecting genetic specimens in NHANES until this workshop has been held and its discussions absorbed. Needless to say, this is of tremendous importance, and the results will have far-reaching consequences. The workshop will be held February 10–11, 2014 at the National Academies of Science. Register here.
  • Health, United States, 2013—This year’s annual report to Congress and the President of the United States features special reporting on prescription drugs. Look for it in May 2014.
  • State Data—The need for state-specific public health data has been growing in recent years. The implementation of the Affordable Care Act will only increase demand. This year, we plan to increase the release and publication of state-by-state data from our National Health Interview Survey and National Health Care Surveys.
  • Moving the Center—Perhaps “looking forward to” is not entirely accurate. As the seventh Center Director, I will have the honor of directing the move of our programs and personnel into new quarters. We will make every conceivable effort to minimize disruptions and maintain the smooth flow of collecting and disseminating health data.

And that is just a sampling. Here’s to a new year, with new challenges and new opportunities for all of us.

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