5 Questions With an Infectious Disease Epidemiologist

Feature Story
Sara Tartof, PhD, with her children Francisco, 3, and Amalia, 6.
Tartof with her children Francisco, 3, and Amalia, 6.

Sara Y. Tartof is an infectious disease epidemiologist who has traveled the world to investigate epidemics. She is now at the Kaiser Permanente Southern California Department of Research & Evaluation, where she studies infectious disease.

Her latest work showed it is safe to give patients the flu shot while they are hospitalized.

What motivated you to pursue this kind of research?

Read about Dr. Tartof’s latest study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

I’ve been fascinated by science for as long as I can remember. My dad had a research lab at the University of Chicago and I loved spending time there among the beakers and graduated cylinders. Then, in my first year of college, I took a microbiology class and I was awestruck by how simple organisms such as bacteria and viruses could hijack and commandeer complex systems like the human body.

At the heart of my professional drive is public health, and at the heart of public health is prevention. My passion for studying vaccines, and specifically how we can prevent rising rates of antibiotic resistance, is rooted in my commitment to preventive care.

I am also motivated by this idea of myth-busting. Sometimes you know something makes sense, but as a scientist, you feel compelled to test that idea with hard data. Our most recent research about flu vaccination for hospitalized patients is an example.

Why was it important for you to study flu vaccination for hospitalized patients?

There is still a lot of fear and hesitation around flu vaccine. There are many narratives that people use as reasons to avoid vaccination — being too sick is a common one.

I understand this sentiment. When my kids were sick, I considered waiting to get them vaccinated, but I also realized there are virtually no data to support this concern. I wanted to test this concern with real data among the people who were arguably the sickest — hospitalized patients.

Sara Tartof, PhD

Sara Tartof, PhD

Why was Kaiser Permanente a good place to conduct this research?

Our integrated care system, which includes inpatient as well as outpatient care, allows us to track health care visits after hospital discharge in all care settings. This means that we were able to track less serious, but still important, health care visits after patients leave the hospital. Most hospital safety studies include information only from the hospital visit itself.

Because of this, we were able to determine that flu vaccine given during hospitalization not only doesn’t increase readmissions to the hospital but also doesn’t increase the number of outpatient visits.

Now that you know flu vaccine is safe for people who are hospitalized, what else do you want to study?

I’m continuing to do work that involves safety in hospitals by focusing on antibiotic resistance and antibiotic stewardship. Antibiotic resistance is one of the most important issues in health care today. There are bacteria that no drug can treat, but few new antibiotics are being developed because they aren’t as profitable as other drugs for pharmaceutical companies.

In one study, we are trying to determine the early predictors of who might develop resistance. If we don’t get those patients the right drug early, they could die. At the same time, we don’t want to overuse our most powerful antibiotics because then they might not work for a patient when he or she really needs it.

In another study, I’m looking at whether antibiotic stewardship — the coordinated effort to promote the appropriate use of antimicrobials including antibiotics — really reduces the rates of resistant infections. There is a lot of momentum behind the belief that antibiotic stewardship improves patient outcomes, reduces microbial resistance, and decreases the burden of infections caused by multidrug-resistant organisms. But we have little data to prove that.

What keeps you going outside of work?

I spend as much time as I can with my family. I have a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old, and they constantly remind me to wander off the linear path in life. I also have an amazing husband (a Kaiser Permanente physician who specializes in occupational and family medicine) who is not only supportive but also enthusiastic about my work. I also make sure to spend time alone, mostly running and swimming. I actually get a lot of my best work done during my workouts!