CMB Profile: Yang Gonghuan

Professor Yang Gonghuan discussing the China Burden of Disease Study at the Policy Dialogue on April 16 in Beijing. On her right is Richard Horton, Editor-in-Chief of the Lancet. Dr. Yang is CMB's May 2013 Person of the Month.

Dr. Yang Gonghuan, an expert on the epidemiology of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in China, is the leader of a recent China Global Burden of Disease Study. Previously serving as vice director of China CDC from 2005-2011, Yang is currently Professor at the Institute of Basic Medical Sciences at Peking Union Medical College, Director of the Global Smoking Research Center, and Director of the China Burden of Disease Research and Dissemination Center where her research focuses primarily on national disease surveillance and tobacco control. Yang earned her degree in medicine from West-China Medical University and studied public health at Harvard University.

Q: What made you want to work in health?
A: I come from a family of doctors. As a “sent-down” youth, I saw early on how people in rural areas lacked basic healthcare and felt an obligation to help. In 1977 I was part of the first batch of medical students to study at West-China Medical University. After graduating in 1982 I was assigned to the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences. There, I shifted my focus of expertise from clinical medicine to public health and health promotion, which I believed might help more people.

Q: How did you first start working with CMB and what has been your experience with CMB?
A: I learned about CMB first through my work with Peking Union Medical College. In 2010, CMB supported my project, “Research on the Practice and Evaluation of Tobacco Control Education for Public Health Professionals and Clinical Doctors.” More recently, CMB has supported my work establishing the Burden of Disease Research and Dissemination Center and helped organize the high-level China Burden of Disease Policy Dialogue.

Q: You’ve been working on a China-focused study using the Global Burden of Disease Study. What motivated you to do this work? Why do you think it is important?
A: As a public health epidemiologist, I track changes in the patterns of population health, especially transformations in the health of the Chinese population. For many years, I’ve worked on establishing more monitoring systems to produce more data. Increased monitoring and data collection have contributed greatly to improved evaluation of population health. But accurate estimation of the health landscape for populations is still a major challenge for two reasons. First, there is still a lack of comprehensive, standardized data for disease, injury, and risk factors. Second, we still need more comprehensive, holistic assessment methods and stronger scientific evidence, which may be used to promote scientific decision-making and evaluation of the effectiveness of intervention programs. Still, work like the global burden of disease (GBD) study represents an innovative trend combining public health epidemiology and statistical methods. This information can lead to development of strategic public health interventions.

Q: What are your hopes for future work in this area? What if any policy or public responses do you hope to achieve? What are the next steps for you?
A: I hope to, in cooperation with the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), form a Burden of Disease Network among interested Chinese departments and organizations for the promotion of evidence-based scientific decision-making. Using GBD methodology, further research will produce studies on different regions in China, focus on different populations, and link up research with evaluation of the impact of China’s health reforms. We will also work on improving the accuracy of the study data, translation of results into policy and evaluation, promotion of evidence-based decision-making, and building the research capacities of our Chinese team. Overall, we want to apply the research strategies of the GBD to advance the field of health in China.