Press release
21 Jun 2022 

EY US survey: US public health officials agree digital transformation can help prepare for future crises – but lack consensus on next steps

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While 82% of senior leader respondents say they need to modernize their organization, only 39% of service delivery team respondents say the same

Public health agencies across the US are at a crossroads, finds the Reimagining Public Health Survey produced by Ernst & Young LLP (EY US). This survey of 301 public health officials found that while slightly more than one in two (52%) are optimistic about what data can achieve for their communities, the rate of digital transformation remains uneven, and organizations face significant barriers to change.

Belinda Minta, EY US Public Health Services Transformation Leader, says:

“After the disruption of COVID-19, public health will never be the same – but the future is still unclear. From the politicization of pandemic interventions to pre-existing operational challenges, today’s public health leaders face both extrinsic and intrinsic obstacles. These must be addressed today to adequately prepare for tomorrow’s anticipated and unexpected public health emergencies.”

The Reimagining Public Health Survey set out to understand the obstacles experienced by public health leaders during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The survey engaged 301 C-suite and senior leaders at public health or health and/or human services government agencies across the US, and asked questions about digital transformation, data strategy, modernization efforts and funding priorities.

Key findings include:

  • Lingering political fall-out has led to reputational challenges.
    • Respondents indicate that partisan reactions to vaccines, mask mandates and other pandemic measures have negatively impacted the perception of public health agencies. Among decision-makers, 78% say they must work hard to re-establish public health’s neutral political role.
  • Digital transformation shows potential for driving progress and equity.
    • The pandemic also highlighted the need to address deep-seated operational challenges. Among decision-makers, 85% believe that a silver lining of COVID-19 was that it revealed weaknesses in the operating infrastructure. Additionally, 56% of respondents say that modernization can drive equitable public health outcomes.
  • But organizational obstacles impede digital transformation.
    • A gulf in perception between operational teams and senior decision-makers shows a lack of consensus: while 82% of senior leader respondents say they need to modernize the organization, only 39% of service delivery team respondents say the same.
    • Further, although public health leaders acknowledge the need for modernization, few are embracing radical change. Only 34% of respondents are pursuing root and branch upgrades of IT systems, and just 10% are integrating this activity with system-wide transformations.
  • Budget constraints place additional pressure on public health leaders.
    • Slightly more than one in two respondents (54%) believe they could get the money they needed to manage another crisis of the magnitude of COVID-19; for nearly one in five (19%), the money would not be there.
  • The Great Resignation comes for public health, as top talent is hard to find and retain.
    • Respondents say they are struggling to find the right talent for their needs: 56% say it is more difficult to secure professionals with the skills to implement technology and data plans. As across many sectors, turnover is high, with 56% reporting increased attrition among employees with the most valuable skills.

Public health organizations face substantial challenges in the post-pandemic era, which digital technology could help to resolve by addressing barriers to implementation. To move forward, public health leaders should clarify strategy from the top-down. Modernization efforts should be presented as a catalyst toward meeting public health’s most challenging and essential goals, and building consensus among service delivery teams and decision-makers is essential.

Further, limited funds do not have to restrict forward progress. Aligning budgets to digital transformation efforts, even by adopting lower-cost solutions, can help prepare public health agencies for future emergencies. And public health officials can highlight the broader societal role of their work to attract employees, especially those who are motivated by the positive impact of health equity.

“Public health organizations have a unique opportunity to unite their workforces, embed a mindset that is open to innovation and use existing budgets to digitalize where and what they can,” said Minta. In doing so, they will find themselves in a stronger position to secure and sustain additional long-term funding and nurture the talent they need to create a more equitable public health system for all.”

The Reimagining Public Health Survey was conducted by Longitude Research Limited among 301 C-suite and senior leaders (commissioner, deputy commissioner, director, head of department, SVP/VP, senior manager) within public health and/or health and human services government agencies across the US. The survey was fielded using an online survey between February 11, 2022 and March 11, 2022.

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