Researcher Profile: Hao Zhang

Hao Zhang Photo

Meet Dr. Hao Zhang, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow

Part of an occasional series of windows
into the lives of researchers on the Harvard China Health Partnership.

Why did you become a public health researcher?

There was no monumental moment. The decision came rather naturally after alternatives had been eliminated. Growing up, I had a lot of fond memories associated with the healthcare setting, as my mom is a doctor. But she didn’t want me to become a doctor – she hoped I could have an easier job. I studied business instead as an undergraduate, but quickly realized that I didn’t like it. I then explored other concentrations in economics and decided that health economics is my favorite. So here I am.

Can you describe one of your current research projects and how it contributes to improving population health?

I’m working on a patient segmentation project right now. Segmentation is an analytical tool that divides people into more homogenous subgroups, and it has great potential for making chronic disease management more targeted and customized. For instance, we could segment hypertension patients into different types based on their healthcare seeking behavior using outpatient and inpatient claims data. This opens up possibilities for identifying different patient types and customizing interventions for each type. This tool is especially useful when limited resources require us to identify high-priority target subpopulations for intervention.

What is one of your key takeaways from comparing health systems in LMICs and HICs?

I injured my knee in sports many years ago and have since used health services in Europe, China, and the United States. I was surprised by the gap between what providers “know” and “do” in high-income countries. While medical training and equipment are better in high-income countries, providers are also not always motivated to do their best. When providing care, my physicians and physiotherapists were reluctant to tap into all their knowledge for an individualized discussion or pay full attention to the specifics of my injury and needs. It seems to be a universal challenge that providers always are performing below their capacity.

What do you consider a key success factor for conducting research in China?

Be humble. Things are complicated, and you can learn a lot from people on the ground. Just looking at the data won’t tell you the contextual factors at play. Local practitioners and officials have a lot of insight to share if you develop relationships with them.

What can other countries learn from China’s health system? Conversely, where might China benefit from the experience of other countries?

One of the great things about China’s health system is that the government has a high willingness to support local experiments. Such flexibility (or decentralization) could be beneficial for local communities in other countries too. At the same time, it is important to rigorously evaluate these experiments to help build the evidence base. Sometimes in China, there is not enough importance attached to prespecifying and adhering to a research design during the experiment. This can create challenges for evaluation.

Do you have any advice for people considering a research career in global public health?

I think each person’s case is different. But everyone will face a lot of known unknowns, and more importantly, a lot of unknown unknowns in the decision making. I don’t have a better solution for the latter than going a little outside the box in the things you read and the people you talk to.

Has anything about living in Boston surprised you?

The start-up scene is very impressive here. I didn’t see anything similar in China or Europe. Here there are so many entrepreneurs, each unhappy with some aspect of the existing system and deciding that reforming from the inside doesn’t work or isn’t good enough. They founded their own companies to push innovation, for example, in primary care model, telehealth, and privacy-preserving data sharing. It’s very exciting and inspiring.

What’s one positive life change you’ve made during the pandemic?

I reinjured my knee as my leg muscles weakened during the pandemic. Unsatisfied with the care I got, I started self-studying – reading sports medicine textbooks and watching YouTube videos. Now, I’m working out regularly and my muscle strength and balance are improving. It feels amazing.