Clinical Center News
December 2023 / January 2024

Profile: Hospital Epidemiologist Dr. Alison Han

10-year NIH veteran leverages her experience in medicine, public health and respiratory virus research

Dr. Alison Han
Dr. Alison Han

Ask Dr. Alison Han to riff on a U.S. Presidential quote, and a safe guess might be Harry S. Truman and "The bacillus stops here."

In March, the 10-year NIH veteran joined the Clinical Center as its hospital epidemiologist, overseeing the CC's Hospital Epidemiology Service (HES). Epidemiologists are public health professionals who specialize in understanding and preventing the causes of disease outbreaks. The CC's team works to reduce the risk of negative health outcomes for the hospital's patients and staff.

Han leads a team of infection preventionists and other specialists who investigate potential outbreaks and work to surveil, control and prevent the spread of infectious organisms in patients, staff and the hospital environment.

In many ways, it's a battle of human ingenuity vs. evolution.

"We're seeing just an increase in the number of these organisms and what they're resistant to," Han says, referring to antibiotic resistance trends across the healthcare landscape. "They're becoming more and more complex, and we're also seeing the number of people [infected] … increase as well."

Han says she and her colleagues are fortunate to work at NIH, which enables them to leverage the expertise of numerous partners across campus, from the Clinical Center Department of Laboratory Medicine to her former colleagues at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

“We have really great partners that share their knowledge and resources to support us in efforts that are important to the patients and the providers,” Han says.

By way of example, she points to the surveillance of multi-drug resistant organisms and newly emerging threats, such as Candida auris, a yeast that causes serious infection and spreads easily in hospitals.

"HES started surveillance for C. auris years ago, and the Department of Laboratory Medicine has always been on board to do that," Han says, noting that the Clinical Center is unique in such efforts.

"Even now, they're looking at newer technologies to see if there is a way we can identify it faster, so we can potentially intervene sooner."

Looking at patient care, staff protocols and the hospital environmental through the lens of infection control and prevention means every day presents new challenges. But the "general theme is teamwork," Han says.

As an undergraduate at Emory University, Han never imagined the career path she would ultimately follow. At the time, she was fascinated with anthropology, particularly forensic anthropology.

But she also happened to work part-time at a lab at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an experience that sparked a growing interest in public health.

Han went on to earn a Master's degree at Harvard's T. H. Chan School of Public Health. She spent several years working for the Georgia Department of Public Health, before returning to school once again to earn a medical degree from the Morehouse School of Medicine.

Han completed a residency in internal medicine and pediatrics at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center and Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital, a combined program that allowed her to pursue her interest in adult and pediatric medicine.

Arriving at NIH in 2013 as a clinical fellow, Han was soon able to pursue another abiding interest: infectious diseases. During her second year, she joined the Laboratory of Infectious Diseases at NIAID and began studying respiratory viruses.

In her new role as Clinical Center hospital epidemiologist, Han can finally integrate her many professional passions.

"It ended up that it combined all the interests that I've had all along though it brought me back to public health," Han says. "I feel like in those personal [career] statements you write along the way, you say, ‘I want to combine all these things.' This kind of really did it for me. It's been a really great opportunity."

- Sean Markey

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