Jeannie Hong: Helping Underserved Populations Achieve Health
For Jeannie Hong, public health isn’t just important. It’s deeply personal.
Hong had just started college when her mother suffered a heart attack. The recovery required a weeklong stay in the intensive care unit. It also left Hong’s family — who had immigrated to the United States just four years prior — with an astronomical bill.
“As an immigrant family, we did not have any medical insurance coverage, disposable income or knowledge about how to navigate the American health care system,” she says.
With the help of a hospital foundation created for low-income patients, they were able to pay the bill. But the experience opened Hong’s eyes to the many factors that contributed to her mother’s condition and recovery, including the stress of adjusting to a new life in a new country.
“I became so grateful afterward and decided to pursue a career in health care to give back by helping the underserved and underprivileged achieve health and well-being.”
Clinical Skills on the Front Lines
After earning a Doctor of Pharmacy degree, Hong joined the Indian Health Service (IHS), an agency within the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which serves the Native American and Alaska Native populations. She currently works at an urban Native American hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, as a rheumatology specialty pharmacist.
“The IHS takes up a small portion of the HHS budget, but the population it serves is one of the most vulnerable in the United States,” she says.
Hong is also a Commissioned Corps officer with the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS). When a national or global public health crisis strikes, she’s one of the brave practitioners deployed to the front lines.
“It would be difficult for a clinical pharmacist to help contain pandemics or study outbreaks unless they chose a completely different career,” she says. “As a PHS officer, however, I can assist with the domestic COVID-19 response and then return to my regular duties as a pharmacist.”
“I always considered an MPH to be a versatile degree. I knew it would complement my clinical background and enable me to better serve my patient population.”
Her recent missions have been especially enlightening. “When I was deployed in February to assist other HHS colleagues in reuniting American citizens from Wuhan, China, my firsthand experiences illustrated how a pandemic affects everyone — regardless of their age, race, gender, level of education, language or religious beliefs,” she says.
Hong’s USPHS service has also guided her professional aspirations. Over the last few years, she’s watched fellow officers — many of whom have dual advanced degrees in areas like public health, public administration, business and law — pursue careers in a wide range of sectors and disciplines. The more she served, the more it felt “only natural” to pursue a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree.
“My experience as a PHS officer definitely validated my decision of pursuing an MPH. It’s given me a deeper appreciation of the important role public health plays,” she says. “I always considered an MPH to be a versatile degree. I knew it would complement my clinical background and enable me to better serve my patient population.”
Chapel Hill, Take Two
When it came time to choose an MPH program, Hong didn’t think twice. She knew where she wanted to go.
“It was an easy decision for me,” she says. “Having graduated from the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, I knew about the quality of the programs next door at UNC Gillings. Besides my Tar Heel pride, I considered the strong network. Many alumni are doing amazing work and research at leading public health agencies.”
The decision has paid off. Hong’s program is full of people who are as passionate about public health as she is, and her classes focus on the practical skills she needs to navigate challenges like COVID-19.
“I have particularly enjoyed SPHG 712 Methods and Measures and the PUBH 791 Core Principles in Public Health Leadership,” she says. “Other courses have taught me how to identify a public health issue; propose and implement solutions; design, collect and analyze data; and do a pilot study.”
“Having graduated from the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, I knew about the quality of the programs next door at UNC Gillings. Many alumni are doing amazing work and research at leading public health agencies.”
Hong is already applying her knowledge in real time — and her patients are healthier for it. When hydroxychloroquine gained national attention as a possible treatment for COVID-19, demand for the drug skyrocketed. The resulting shortages were devastating for many of Hong’s patients, who rely on hydroxychloroquine to manage serious rheumatological conditions like lupus. Hong jumped into action.
“I was able to work with different stakeholders, including my supervisors, to address the shortage of hydroxychloroquine by rationing monthly supplies of the drug instead of the usual 90-day supplies,” she explains. “We also risk-stratified patients to ensure those with critical needs would continue to receive the medication without interruption in a smart manner.”
Preparing for a Future in Epidemiology
What does the future hold for Hong? She wants to explore epidemiology. Her fascination began in college when a professor recommended The Hot Zone, Richard Preston’s nonfiction thriller about the Ebola and Marburg viruses. She was hooked.
“My interest in epidemiology was rekindled as I watched my fellow PHS officers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) deploy nationally and internationally for Ebola and Zika missions,” she says. “The CDC has a two-year postdoctoral training in applied epidemiology for aspiring ‘disease detectives’ — I would be thrilled if I could complete the training and become a disease detective myself!”
“Carrying a full-time course load with school and work while being deployment-ready hasn’t been easy,” she admits. “However, all of my past and current instructors as well as the student success staff have been nothing but helpful and encouraging. My classmates have also been understanding and willing to pick up my part if needed. I feel so fortunate to have met such amazing people!”