Being a public health leader is challenging, but my work is more essential than ever: Meet Dr. Kelly Moore

By Yasmine S. Ali, MD, MSCI, FACC, FACP
Published December 28, 2023

Key Takeaways

Kelly L. Moore, MD, MPH, is the president and CEO of Immunize.org, a nonprofit that advocates to remove barriers to vaccination for all. By dispensing education and facilitating communication about the safety, effectiveness, and use of vaccines, they aim to increase immunization rates across the broad community of patients, parents, healthcare organizations, and government health agencies.

MDLinx spoke with Dr. Moore about her long career in public health; challenges faced by leaders in the field; and why advocating to remove barriers to care, across communities, is now more essential than ever before. 

What are some of the highlights of your career in public health?

I began my career as an Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) officer in the class of 2001. 

"My EIS experience was unusually diverse, including a hospital outbreak in Egypt, response to 9/11 and anthrax, and conducting smoking cessation counseling training for physicians in Russia."

Kelly L. Moore, MD, MPH

Following EIS, I spent my CDC preventive medicine residency year with the Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) where I partnered with state legal counsel to modernize state infectious disease control regulations, including the rules for imposing and enforcing isolation and quarantine.

I was delighted to stay on at TDH as the state’s first pandemic influenza planning coordinator and director of the immunization program. During my time with TDH, I oversaw development of the state’s first modern pandemic response plan, and in 2009, used that expertise to design and implement a national model distribution system for rapid deployment of vaccines to respond to the H1N1 influenza pandemic. 

In 2012, I received the Natalie J. Smith, MD, award from the National Association of Immunization Managers for excellence in immunization program management. 

"Since my early career, I have championed the need to improve vaccine storage and handling practices to prevent vaccine damage and waste."

Kelly L. Moore, MD, MPH

As a result, I’ve sought out opportunities to learn from vaccine experts around the world, from Albania to Turkey to Geneva. I served on the CDC’s federal Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) from 2015–2019 and as member and chair of the WHO’s Immunization Practices Advisory Committee (IPAC), which sunset in 2020.

More recently, I have taken over as president and CEO of a leading immunization, education, and advocacy organization, Immunize.org. In this role, I now have the privilege to lead an exceptional team of thought leaders in immunization education and policy. 

Taking on these challenges in the midst of a pandemic has been especially exciting—leaving little room for anything else—but it is a role I feel like my whole professional life has led me to, and I’m grateful for it every day.

 What made you decide to become a physician?

My 6th-grade autobiography included a chapter on future plans, in which I said that I wanted to be a physician. I specifically encouraged the reader to search me out in about 20 years if they had an incurable disease so I could help them.

In college, after starting out in history, I became interested in neuroscience, but I found no joy in the laboratory environment. I wanted to work with people and I wanted to lead projects. A wise professor counseled me that if I wanted to be a leader and work with people I would be best positioned with a medical degree. By that point, I no longer dreamed of a life in patient care, but I had also learned that a medical career could evolve in many different directions, as mine did.

Why did you choose to specialize in public health?

Before medical school, I traveled around the world on my own as the Vanderbilt Traveling Fellow, an award I won as a senior undergraduate. 

During that time, and later, after spending time at the Child in Need Institute in West Bengal, India, I grew to appreciate how easily preventable conditions of disease and malnutrition derailed and destroyed lives and families. 

When I was a 2nd-year medical student, a leading professor commented in a lecture that about 95% of people who died from infectious diseases in the world were dying of diseases we already knew how to readily treat or prevent. That remark struck me to my core.

I knew most of my classmates were bound for labs, research, and academic careers. I was drawn to solving the problems of implementation. 

"If so many people were dying because we couldn’t reach them with known interventions, I could save lives by making the right things to do, much easier to do."

Kelly L. Moore, MD, MPH

As a 3rd-year student at Vanderbilt School of Medicine, I applied for the Master of Public Health program at Harvard School of Public Health. I’ve often described my MPH year as my “favorite year of life.” 

"This was the year I discovered that people made careers out of the activities that, until then, had been only extracurricular interests."

Kelly L. Moore, MD, MPH

I spent time with luminaries like Paul Farmer, who lit up my passion for tackling these challenges.

What advice would you give to other women in medicine considering public health?

We need many more smart, passionate, innovative women who are outstanding communicators to join in leading the next generation of public health professionals. Public health suffers in the area of public relations (and pay, and respect).

How many times have I explained what I do, only to have the listener say, “Oh, so you don’t practice medicine?” I always explain, “Yes, I practice medicine every day—population medicine!”

"But, be warned, you need many skills beyond clinical acumen and bedside manner to be successful in public health."

Kelly L. Moore, MD, MPH

Our work has to take into account medicine, epidemiology, economics, culture, business, values, the media, and politics, among other things. 

Public health is inevitably political, because its work addresses how our communities function and how they support (or fail to support) people affected by thorny social issues, but it is not inevitably partisan.

However, public health leaders are visible and can receive unwanted attention and vitriol for doing and advocating what they think is in the best interest of the public’s health. It’s a challenge—but it’s also more essential than ever—especially if we are to prevent needless suffering and to empower people of all ages, in all communities, to live their best lives.

Kelly L. Moore, MD, MPH, is the president and CEO of Immunize.org and a leader in national and global vaccine policy and immunization program implementation. She served for 14 years as the director of the Tennessee Immunization Program and later founded her own consulting company, The Vaccine Advisor, LLC, to advise public health and industry. She has served in a variety of immunization policy advisory roles with the World Health Organization since 2016, including as chair of its Immunization Practices Advisory Committee. Dr. Moore is a graduate of the Vanderbilt School of Medicine and the Harvard School of Public Health. She completed her public health leadership training as an Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer and preventive medicine resident with the CDC. 

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