Investigator Spotlight: Getting to Know Jason Block
March is National Nutrition Month, so we talked to one of our investigators who works in that area. Meet Jason Block, MD, MPH!
A graduate of Tulane University School of Medicine and School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, Dr. Block is a clinician and researcher whose primary research interests are neighborhood-level determinants of weight gain and obesity, the evaluation of governmental and institutional policies and other novel interventions to improve diet, and leveraging electronic health record data for observational research and public health surveillance.
Join us as we learn more about Dr. Block (and to continue learning about his research developments, follow him on Twitter).
Q: How did you come to work at the Institute? Can you tell us about your career trajectory since starting here?
A: I finished my Internal Medicine residency at Brigham and Women's in 2006 and subsequently did a teaching year as a Chief Resident there. Because of my interest in research, I started a research fellowship at the Harvard School of Public Health in 2007. During my first year, I learned of a faculty position at DPM in the Obesity Prevention Program (known today as the Division of Chronic Disease Research Across the Lifecourse) and decided to apply. I was lucky enough to get the job and started at DPM in 2009. Since that time, my work has been similarly balanced between clinical work and research. Initially, I worked almost exclusively on nutrition policy research but more recently have integrated work on chronic disease epidemiology and surveillance using data from electronic health records. I also have been teaching more at HMS.
Q: How does your position as a general internal medicine physician with training in population health and epidemiology inform your approach to interventions to promote a healthy diet and weight?
A: I first became interested in research on weight and diet while in medical school. I learned about the obesity epidemic, which developed over a relatively short period of time starting in the 1980s. The epidemic resulted from drastic changes in how we eat, and the solutions to reversing it are more at the population level than at the individual level. Unhealthy food is ubiquitous. We need to help people eat more healthfully. Medical treatment to promote weight loss is improving but still not enough to reverse the epidemic. We therefore need to combine efforts to treat patients with a more robust prevention strategy so that we can start to reverse the rising trends in obesity that are causing myriad health problems for adults and children.
Q: What are you working on now? What kind of impact do you hope this work will have?
A: On the nutrition policy front, I'm working on an evaluation of a federal law requiring calorie labeling in restaurants and other food stores. We are using sales data from food establishments to determine whether the law led to meal calorie reductions. We're hoping this work will give us a very clear picture of how effective (or not) this policy can be. We think the effect is small, and this work will help to clarify that we need a comprehensive set of obesity prevention policies to help reverse trends.
I'm also working on determining the extent to which common medicines influence weight over time. We are examining this in 16 healthcare systems, using data from The National Patient-Centered Clinical Research Network (PCORnet), a large research network that has data from electronic health records. More recently, we are using data from a large number of healthcare systems in PCORnet to conduct disease surveillance, including for COVID-19.
Q: In addition to your work as a researcher, clinician, and educator, you’ve also worked directly on policy activities. Can you tell us more about that work and any subsequent impacts?
A: I was a Senior Advisor to the Acting Assistant Secretary for Health at the US Department of Health and Human Services from 2016-17. I did this part-time while continuing my research. It gave me the opportunity to learn what the federal government was doing in nutrition and physical activity and to help the office make some strategic recommendations about what the federal government can do next. As the new administration engages more on these topics, we hope that nutrition policy can be at the forefront of a post-pandemic public health strategy.
Q: March is National Nutrition Month. What interested you in nutrition policy as one of your research foci?
A: We need to focus more on changing the way we eat. In recent years, a variety of policies have been pushed forward from calorie labeling to sugary beverage taxes. More policies will be needed to catalyze real change in the American diet and help to reverse decades of worsening health.