Program evaluation is a crucial part of monitoring program excellence at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Measuring and assessing program impacts and identifying areas for improvement ensures that each program achieves its full population health potential.
As part of an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) fellowship at CDC, postgraduate Vishakha Ramakrishnan was able to gain first-hand experience providing evaluation support to public health programs.
The ORISE fellowship is one of many CDC Research Participation Programs, which are educational and training programs designed to provide students, recent graduates and university faculty opportunities to participate in project-specific CDC research, current public health research and developmental activities. Through these programs, participants like Ramakrishnan are able to gain professional experience in their field of choice.
Ramakrishnan earned her bachelor’s degrees in community health and economics from Tufts University in 2015. One year later, she graduated from the university’s School of Medicine with a Master of Public Health degree in epidemiology and biostatistics, and she began work at an electronic health records company. While at this job, she had the opportunity to present to CDC stakeholders at the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and Tuberculosis Prevention (NCHHSTP). When she heard about the work conducted at NCHHSTP, she was inspired to apply for an ORISE position at the Center.
Ramakrishnan was accepted into the ORISE fellowship program in 2018. As a fellow at CDC, she was placed with NCHHSTP’s Program and Performance Improvement Office (PPIO). Under the mentorship of Senior Health Policy Analyst Abigail Viall, Sc.D., and Associate Director Michelle Van Handel, MPH, Ramakrishnan collaborated with members of PPIO to evaluate and enhance the efficiency, outcomes and impact of NCHHSTP program policies and activities.
For one of her activities, Ramakrishnan monitored the performance of 41 states that were awarded funds to identify regions most at risk for HIV, hepatitis C and opioid outbreak due to injection drug use. After locating the regions at risk, each state then used the funding to implement targeted prevention strategies. Ramakrishnan collected and analyzed performance metric data on a quarterly basis, and she compiled the data into easily understood and visually appealing performance reports. Using these reports, she met regularly with state-level stakeholders and her mentors to provide status updates, discuss ideas and share effective program practices internally at CDC and across funded jurisdictions. These conversations facilitated collaboration around identifying areas for improvement to ensure program success.
For Ramakrishnan, who was drawn to the field of community health because of its focus on the collective good, the widespread impacts of her program evaluation efforts are rewarding.
“State public health departments use funding from CDC to improve key health outcomes at the local level,” she explained. “Keeping track of program performance ensures that states are getting the support they need from CDC to do the best job that they can creating healthier and safer communities.”
Through her fellowship, Ramakrishnan strengthened her skills in data management and interpretation. She also learned new skills important in public health, such as how to initiate, build and sustain partnerships among multiple entities working toward a shared goal.
“The fellowship program has been an incredibly valuable experience, and an important stepping stone in my career,” Ramakrishnan said. “I would absolutely recommend the program to anyone who is early in their career and interested in a rigorous learning opportunity in the field of public health.”
Outside of her fellowship, Ramakrishnan connects with other fellows and public health practitioners through the CDC Young Professionals Network and the CDC Fellows Professional Development Collective. After her fellowship concludes, she plans to continue exploring the field of process improvement and program evaluation in public health.
The program is managed by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) under an agreement between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). ORISE focuses on scientific initiatives including educating the next generation of scientists and is managed for DOE by ORAU.