How to have a public health internship during a pandemic

I recently completed a 12-week internship with The Lown Institute and their sister organization, the Right Care Alliance. My first week on the job coincided with the shutdown of the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s what I learned.

Being a public health student in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic is strange, to say the least. On the one hand, I maintain an eager, academic interest in following predictive models and engaging with thought leaders. On the other hand, I see loss of life and opportunity for millions of people, and sometimes the pain is just too much to bear. Striking the right balance between evidence and empathy defined my 12 weeks as a public health intern at The Lown Institute and the Right Care Alliance. These are the lessons that helped me find that balance.

Communication is everything.

I’ve long believed that any good relationship—romantic, platonic, professional, or otherwise—is dependent on every participating party’s ability to communicate effectively. I spent much of my time at Lown learning about their methodology for imputing datasets and learning how to relay results in a meaningful way. My biggest takeaway? Good data alone won’t save the world. If it did, then horror movies wouldn’t regularly begin with politicians ignoring scientists. Being able to communicate data in a way that makes research accessible and exciting for the lay public may just be the ticket to improving healthcare.

This message of improving communication for life science research isn’t new, but it has increased in importance since the pandemic. People who were never interested in public health before the pandemic are paying attention to health care. The world is listening, and the way we respond matters.

Actually, maybe compassion is everything. 

Embedded in the message of improved communication is an opportunity for kindness, respect, flexibility, and understanding. In other words, compassion. This is something the Lown Institute and the Right Care Alliance model on both the micro and macro scale. Every meeting during my internship began with a personal check-in for all in attendance. Instead of launching into weekly to-do lists or last week’s accomplishments, we talked about how everyone was doing. I learned about art projects, new dogs, pottery, weddings, adventures in baking, and–perhaps most surprisingly–I learned that talking about the weather can actually be pretty therapeutic. Because all meetings were held over video conferencing apps, check-ins became a chance to intentionally connect and build community. 

I realized that this model of compassion and community reflects these organizations’ values and missions. I saw these values embodied in real time during virtual town halls, study groups, steering committee meetings, and everywhere else decisions were being made. Those with differing sets of ideas and values were never seen as “other.” Instead, their ideas were met with a genuine interest. Such kindness acted as a catalyst for problem solving; instead of merely defending their own positions, I witnessed those with differences of opinion work with one another toward a common goal. 

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

In the end, my internship provided me with an immersive case study for organizational strategy in response to real world events. I was able to intimately witness some of the best minds in health care coming together to discuss communication, ethics, and the application of public health theory.

Perhaps more importantly, I was able to witness the humanity and humility of leaders in American health care (and not only because video conferencing invited me into their homes). I learned that no one person holds the key to solving the COVID-19 pandemic and that no single conversation can fix health care’s systemic problems, pandemic or not. I learned that the only way we can achieve a radically better American health system is through unity.

To achieve this unity, we must first acknowledge that healthcare comes down to what we believe we owe each other, and we must be willing to owe each other more. We must surrender partisan loyalty and old beliefs which continue to perpetuate massive disparities in health outcomes. And finally, if I learned anything from my internship, it’s that we must be willing to approach problem solving with an equal balance of evidence, humility, and hope. If we can do this, then a radically better American health system is truly within reach.