Population Health

January 25, 2022

Spotlight: Ali Mokdad’s dedication to improving population health locally and globally

Image of Ali MokdadAli H. Mokdad, the University of Washington’s Chief Strategy Officer for Population Health and Professor of Health Metrics Sciences at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), has dedicated his career to improving the health of populations both locally and globally. His expertise and zeal posit him as an inspiring leader for the Population Health Initiative and the broader UW community.

Mokdad began his career in epidemiology after receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in Biostatistics from the American University of Beirut. He then emigrated to the United States to complete a Ph.D. in Quantitative Epidemiology from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

“My degrees prepared me, but hands-on experience is what made me who I am today,” Mokdad said.

While in Georgia, Mokdad began his career at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“I started at the CDC as a data analyst when I was completing my Ph.D.,” Mokdad said. “Then I went up through the agency and I became the director of one of the largest surveillance systems in the United States, where we track risk factors and behaviors throughout the country.”

During his time at the CDC, Mokdad worked as a senior epidemiologist and later as Chief of the Behavioral Surveillance Branch. Among the contributions made during his time at the CDC, some highlights include Mokdad’s management of the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) – an innovative telephonic survey of adults in the US that enables the CDC to monitor adult morbidity and mortality – and his surveillance work during the 2004-2005 influenza vaccine shortage.

“I used my surveillance system to track the uptake of the vaccine and was able to give the leadership at the CDC quantifiable data on flu vaccination rates, similar to our current situation right now with COVID-19,” Mokdad said. “That’s what a real health agency should be able to do, to monitor and implement policies based on real-time data.”

His surveillance work on flu monitoring won him the Department of Health and Human Services Honor Award and the Shepard Award for outstanding scientific contribution to public health for his work on BRFSS.

“I also take great pride in my work in emergency and refugee health,” Mokdad said.

Following the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, he was deployed in Banda Aceh to respond to the humanitarian crisis. For this work, he was honored with the Global Health Achievement Award.

After 20 years at the CDC, Mokdad transitioned to the UW in late 2008.

The vision for IHME, set forth by its director, Christopher Murray, piqued Mokdad’s interest in the university.

“Murray and his vision to conduct burden of disease evaluations for every country in the world and make that data public interested me,” Mokdad said. “I greatly liked the mission of IHME and the vision Murray proposed.”

At IHME, Mokdad serves as professor of Health Metrics Sciences and Director of Middle Eastern Initiatives.

“When we talk about improving the health of a community, we must consider all of the factors that impact health,” Mokdad said. “To make the biggest impact on health, you must understand and address the risk factors that pertain to a variety of disciplines.”

With this nuanced understanding, Mokdad was well-suited to help envision and cultivate the Population Health Initiative in 2016.

“When President Cauce proposed the initiative, my main mandate was to help build the initiative and make sure we addressed all the issues that impact population health,” Mokdad said. “We spent the first couple of years bringing people together, finding ways we could collaborate in our city, county, state, and beyond. We built that network, internally within the UW and externally in our larger Washington State community.”

Mokdad was later appointed Chief Strategy Officer for Population Health in 2018. In this role, Mokdad reports directly to President Cauce and works collaboratively with the provost and other colleagues in various disciplines to advance the UW’s vision to improve population health.

“The work being done at the initiative is much needed, especially when examining the cracks within existing health systems,” Mokdad said. “The initiative helps address human health, as well as socioeconomic and environmental factors that impact population health. The initiative recognizes the intersecting and overarching ways in which these factors influence the health of a community.”

The benefits of this interdisciplinary and wide-reaching approach to population health are being realized as the world continues to grapple with the far-reaching impacts the COVID-19 pandemic has had.

“The ingenuity and resiliency of our UW community is impressive,” Mokdad said. “Even during this challenging time, our faculty, staff, students and associates have been amazing in realizing the utility of collaborative approaches to solving the world’s most pressing population health challenges.”

Most recently, Mokdad has been actively responding to novel coronavirus as a leading public health official and researcher. IHME COVID-19 projections have been heavily cited by local and national news outlets, as well as top policymakers.

“We at UW have the experience and capacity to provide a lot of insight,” Mokdad said. “My role during COVID-19 has changed a lot. All of my skills and what I have learned throughout my career have come in handy, and I am using them on a daily basis.”