Meet NCHS Director, Edward Sondik
Edward Sondik started out post-PhD life as an electrical engineer, teaching systems and operations research–related courses at Stanford, but became interested in health as an application, especially of modeling health as a Markov process.
What have you enjoyed most about being head of NCHS?
I’ve especially enjoyed balancing the center’s dual role in the Department of Health and Human Services and our role as a federal statistical agency. These complementary roles contrast with the single statistical agency structure of other countries. We serve the core policy and research needs of government as well as the private sector. We’re responsible for birth and death data and for measures of health status—both self-reported and measured directly—and a variety of health care data, both from doctors’ offices and from hospitals.
I’d also include in my list reporting on trends in how we live (and are born and die); trends in health status and health risks; meeting the monitoring needs of the decades-long Healthy People program important to so many state efforts; and, perhaps most, I’ve enjoyed supporting the changes we’ve made in data collection and reporting technology and methodology.
Our knowledge of the factors affecting health and the very measures of health itself are changing …
What do you see as the biggest challenge(s) for NCHS, and have they changed significantly since you started in this position?
Several challenges come to mind: Anticipating data collection needs and changing our programs to collect new information while supporting critical trends; adapting to new modes for collecting data such as the web; combining data from different modes since we know that mode makes a difference in answers; understanding the relationship between self-reported and clinical measures; moving into a world of electronic heath records and perhaps even crowd sourcing; and online tools for data analysis. A continuing challenge is information on health disparities. While our principal focus is national, we need to support measures at the state and local levels, too. Perhaps most challenging will be incorporating new data-collection technologies. Whether it’s [using] the web to collect data or figuring out how to make sense of crowd technologies, I’m convinced that these technologies and electronic health records are in our future. The challenge? How to use them to give quality information.
Describe your top two or three priorities for NCHS.
Preparing the agency for those new modes of data collection while at the same time building a staff with the expertise we need to maintain our mission to serve as the gold standard for health data. It’s also essential that our program meet the very diverse and changing needs of the Department of Health and Human Services. Our knowledge of the factors affecting health and the very measures of health itself are changing, and it is our responsibility to respond to these changes to give our country the data it needs for policy decision and research. It’s critical, therefore, that we have open and frequent communication with the policy and research staffs throughout our large department.
What do you see as the role for the broader statistical community in supporting NCHS?
I see this as a matter of mutual support in providing the multi-domain information that’s needed to address issues of well-being—not only health, but also other aspects of well-being such as income, education, participation in civic affairs, housing, and freedom from crime and violence. I also feel that joint research on topics in survey research, cognitive studies, use of administrative records, and collaborative work with academe, the National Science Foundation, and the National Academies would be helpful to all of us.
What do you see as the biggest accomplishment of the agency during your tenure?
Our biggest accomplishment is how we’ve changed. Our staff has greatly reduced the time form data collection to publication in all cases from literally years to months. We’ve anticipated a wide variety of data needs crucial to policy and research to improve Americans’ health. As a couple of examples, we collect data on exposures to environmental substances particularly important to environmental research and have begun a follow-back component on heart disease in our ambulatory care survey. Plus, we’ve expanded our data dissemination through new reports and the web. I might add that our budget has grown and we’ve not suffered a cutback, which I think reflects that we are recognized as a critical part of the department and health infrastructure. To date, we’ve maintained our independence in accord with the National Academy of Sciences’ principles and practices.