With more than 15 years of experience in health and nutrition, Cao Ying brings extensive programmatic knowledge to her role as Country Director for Vital Strategies’ China office. Since 2019, Ying has led the team in China as they work to strengthen health systems using evidence-based communication and policy advocacy in tobacco control and road safety, and for Resolve to Save Lives’ Cardiovascular Health initiative. To strengthen and expand Vital’s work in China, she manages relationships with partners and collaborates with program teams to develop local programming.
Before joining Vital Strategies, Ying served as the director of program operations at Save the Children in China. She also spent sixteen years working in health and development for the nonprofit sector and five years as a senior physician specializing in diagnostic ultrasound at Ruijin Hospital in Shanghai. Ying holds a master’s degree in public health nutrition from Wageningen University in the Netherlands and a bachelor’s degree in medicine from Shanghai Second Medical University.
We sat down with Cao Ying to learn what brought her to the field of public health, the projects she and her team are working on to create a healthier China and why she loves to travel around the country (in non-COVID times, of course).
What brought you to the field of public health?
Years ago, I made the decision to leave my health services career and shift into the NGO and public health field because I thought that with my knowledge and skills, I would be well positioned to help populations that were not receiving the attention or health services they needed. I saw that the health system did not provide equal access to everyone and wanted to work to address this imbalance in resource allocation. Health services are far more complicated than an individual’s good intentions; systematic changes are what can lead us to achieve strong universal health care for all. When I realized my personal interest was no longer in curing individual patients, I shifted into the field of public health, where I could make a difference in prevention and health equity at the population level.
What excites you the most about the work you do at Vital Strategies?
I am driven by Vital Strategies’ mission to find solutions for unexpected challenges that happen every day. We work to fill gaps and to respond to needs—whether it be in data, in service provision or in knowledge about the food we consume or air we breathe. This is particularly evident in our Resolve to Save Lives’ work on cardiovascular health. In 2012, the estimated prevalence of hypertension was 23% in China, which meant there were 245 million people with hypertension. To improve patient outcomes and lives, we are working with our team to better treat and manage hypertension through the primary health care systems in seven of China’s provinces.
What are some new projects or initiatives at Vital Strategies China?
China has among the highest salt intake in the world. Through our salt reduction interventions, we are working to help the Chinese government meet its goal of reducing salt intake by 20% by 2030. We are currently preparing to conduct sodium reduction interventions in communities, schools, canteens, and restaurants through China CDC in the Zhejiang and Hunan provinces, as well as in Shandong and Anhui through provincial CDC offices. We are also working to identify opportunities to advocate for policy-level change, such as the development of front-of-package nutrition labels and mandatory school meal guidelines. Through our partners at World Health Organization China, we are also testing innovative ways to address sodium intake using online food ordering applications.
Since 2008, we have been working with the Chinese government to develop media campaigns to garner support for smart tobacco control policies and increase awareness of the harms of smoking and secondhand smoke. This year, we entered into a new strategic partnership with the Population Cultural Development Center of the National Health Commission. Together, we designed and conducted a series of social media campaigns focusing on two policy priorities: smoke-free and taxation. Additionally, with our partners we held a 10-city “Smoke-Free Healthy Run” campaign that attracted over 100,000 online and offline runners to support advocacy for smoke-free spaces. In 2021, we expect to involve new influential partners as part of our media campaigns, including the China Family Planning Association and All China Women’s Federation.
Where do you live and what do you enjoy most about it?
I live in the capital city, Beijing, but spend at least half of my time in Vital’s office in Jinan. Jinan is a beautiful city in the Shandong province, known as the city of springs for the more than 800 springs across the city. I travel a lot nationally (during non-COVID times) and really enjoy learning about and experiencing differences in culture. Within China there are quite a few differences between the northern, southern, eastern and western parts of the country. I also love the diversity of food that we have here.
Who or what inspires you?
I very much admire academics who invent new theories or methods. But being a practitioner, I also fully respect the people dedicated to making those changes happen.
What advice would you give to those interested in entering the public health field?
A strong public health system is fundamental to the functioning of society. No matter your background, you will find an area in the public health field that you enjoy and where your experience and skills would be helpful.