Natalie Pawlenko is being honored as a Champion of Change for helping Americans live healthier lives, reduce disease and contribute to lowering health care costs by focusing communities on public health and prevention.
Sometime in my early teens, I had an epiphany: all our actions – even those we think to be most private - contribute to the life around us. And that we have a choice to either contribute positively to an upward spiral of human life, or to its antithesis. I chose the former.
The past thirty years of my life have been an ongoing search for ways in which to continuously contribute to the community. As a child of immigrants fleeing from WW II in Ukraine, there was frequently a sense of appreciation for the privilege of having been born in the United States, and a desire to “give back”. However, not until the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 did I focus on the health of the public, here and elsewhere in the world.
Public health is our invisible first line of defense. It is everywhere: from childhood immunizations, to clean drinking water, to food inspections and clean air. It is complex, like newborn screening and disease outbreak monitoring. It is also as simple as you and me washing our hands frequently and sneezing into our shirt-sleeves. It is pervasive, and as history has shown, it can be profoundly transformative.
After working in Canada for many years and witnessing the critical role played by public health in the containment of the SARS outbreak there, I returned to New Jersey and joined the New Jersey Department of Health, Office of Local Public Health. I have an abiding interest in public health informatics and have spearheaded the reform of the public health reporting system in New Jersey.
And over the course of the past nine years, I have gotten to know the many men and women, public health professionals whose daily work in their local communities keep our state healthy and safe. Their commitment inspires me greatly and in my various roles here at the State Health Department, I have endeavored to support them in doing their vital work more effectively and efficiently and with less unnecessary burden.
Whether it is championing quality improvement training or performance evaluation audits, process management or leadership coaching, accreditation preparation or informatics reform, my team and I continuously focus on being ‘ruthlessly practical’. And in the fast paced environment that is the East Coast, we ground our work in collaboration, mutual respect and an awareness that everything we do contributes to the health of the public we serve.
With funding from the Affordable Care Act’s Prevention and Public Health Fund, the state of New Jersey has reduced the lag time between testing and reporting influenza results to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2-to-3 weeks down to 2-to-3 days. With more timely information, local health departments are better prepared to address emerging health issues and prevent future issues.
Natalie Pawlenko is the Director of the Office of Local Public Health for the New Jersey Department of Health where she is leading a statewide effort to streamline and coordinate public health data collection and analysis to improve public health prevention and response.