Health System Spotlight: Debbie Salas-Lopez, MD, MPH, SVP of Community and Population Health at Northwell Health - Truveta

Health System Spotlight: Debbie Salas-Lopez, MD, MPH, SVP of Community and Population Health at Northwell Health

An image of Dr. Debbie Salas-Lopez, MD, MPH, at her desk.

Truveta’s innovative Governance model includes the outstanding health system leaders on our Board of Governors’ Committees. We spoke with Dr. Debbie Salas-Lopez, who serves on Truveta’s Ethics and Health Equity Committee.  

The committee provides strategic guidance and feedback on Truveta’s adherence to appropriate ethical standards, the Truveta Ethics Policy, and the advancement of health equity.  

As Senior Vice President of Community and Population Health, Dr. Salas-Lopez oversees Northwell Health’s community and public health strategy, including community health investment, community relations, strategic community partnerships, the Center for Equity of Care, as well as the smoking cessation, human trafficking, and Food as Health programs. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, her team partnered with various community and faith-based leaders to identify their most-pressing needs, which became the catalyst for Northwell’s faith-based testing initiative — a program where Northwell partners with community and faith-based centers to offer free diagnostic and serology (antibody) testing. Dr. Salas-Lopez is a nationally recognized speaker and educator. In 2021, Modern Healthcare named her to its annual Top 25 Women Leaders as a “Woman to Watch.”  

Tell us about yourself. Can you share a bit about your background? 

I joined Northwell in 2019 as Senior Vice President for Transformation, responsible for value-based initiatives that improve health and care delivery. I previously served as the Chief Transformation Officer at Lehigh Valley Health Network, where I led strategy and oversaw a unique and broad portfolio, including community-based and population health initiatives, telehealth, connected care, and innovation, strategic partnerships, and operational redesigning of the clinical delivery system.  

Throughout your career, what have you learned about the power and potential of data? 

Data has the potential to help drive informed decisions on strategy, execution, and outcomes. It should be governed ethically and shared through informed consent with individuals that will use it in a thoughtful manner to improve health and health outcomes. I have also learned that data can be collected from many existing publicly available sources — including social media — and then used to ‘nudge’ individuals to make decisions. 

What does Truveta’s vision — of saving lives with data — mean to you?  

Truveta’s ability to aggregate data from many provider systems across the country, to standardize data definitions, and then allow investigators to look for trends and outcomes that may be important to understand to improve health is very powerful.  Moreover, Truveta provides an opportunity to ask and answer questions at scale across diverse populations. 

You serve on Truveta’s Board of Governors’ Ethics Committee. What do you think is unique about Truveta’s approach? 

Truveta is unique in that it is accumulating, normalizing, and then using data to answer clinical questions at scale. That has never been done before. It has the potential to hold millions of clinical data points for investigators to study. Truveta’s approach is to use this large dataset in an ethical and responsible manner for purposes of improving health and health outcomes. 

How has your work during the pandemic (leading the Long Island Regional Health Equity Task Force) changed or reinforced your views on health equity? 

The pandemic uncovered many long-standing health and social issues in our community. Those that were hardest-hit — infected, hospitalized, or died at higher rates — were individuals from economically-disadvantaged communities of color with high unmet social needs. When the vaccine initially became available, it was in short supply. We formed the Health Equity Taskforce to ensure the safe and equitable distribution of the vaccine, in particular to our communities of color. We worked with over 100 community, faith-based, and tribal nations leaders to inform the distribution of the vaccine using data, including where we had communities with high infection rates, high social vulnerabilities, and high uninsured rates.  We combined the data with the input from HET to proactively work within these communities to distribute the vaccine. The outcome was highlighted by the media touting the high vaccination rates within Long Island communities of color and the relative decrease in infection rates over time. 

Can you tell us about a pivotal moment, event, or person in your life that changed the direction of your career? 

I have had many pivotal moments. I’ll share two:  

1) My high school typing teacher told me that I had to learn how to type because I was not going to amount to anything in life. I told my Dad (my mentor and hero) who told me that I could accomplish anything I wanted to in life – I just had to believe it. This is something I still think about today when I’m embarking on something that is difficult for me.  

2) When I was selling real estate, a buyer asked me a question that would change my life. She asked, “Is this what you wanted to do when you were growing up?” I said, “No – I wanted to be a doctor.” She asked, “Why didn’t you become a doctor?” And I responded, “I didn’t have the money and I didn’t know how.” She replied, “You have the money now” — I was very successful at selling real estate — “and I bet you can figure out how.” I did. 

What are you looking forward to next in the healthcare industry? 

I am looking forward to the continued transformation of healthcare! In particular, use of data to inform health and care, digital tools as the new front door to health, and new channels of consumer-informed service delivery. I’m also looking forward to health system providers that broaden their missions to partner with communities on the upstream factors that affect health — things like education, employment, food, housing, transportation, and other social determinants of health. 

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