State commissioner talks public health

KELLY FARRELL | The Sun

Dr. Jeffrey Howard, commissioner of Kentucky Department for Public Health, addresses the Rotary Club of Paducah Wednesday at the Carson Center. Howard discussed a variety of topics in his presentation, including public health and its goals.

Dr. Jeffrey Howard, commissioner of the Kentucky Department for Public Health, addressed Paducah Rotarians Wednesday about public health and the challenges it faces in the future.

Howard, an eastern Kentucky native, served as this week's Rotary Club of Paducah speaker in the Myre River Room at the Carson Center where he discussed several issues, including what public health means, its goals and challenges. He travels around the state and noted that some people don't know the difference between public health and health care.

"Public health is the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health through organized efforts and informed choices of society, organizations, public and private communities and individuals," he said, referencing World Health Organization's definition.

The public health system faces several challenges, including the ongoing state pension crisis, and many health departments face fiscal instability. He also shared that Kentucky ranked 45th out of 50 in America's Health Rankings and made the top 40 once since 1990, but ranks about 26th in public health spending.

Howard seeks to focus on "foundational" public health services, such as population health and communicable disease control, along with local health department programs, including Women, Infants and Children (WIC); Health Access Nurturing Development Services (HANDS) for parents; and harm reduction/substance abuse programs. Community health assessments can be used to determine priorities for other services.

The goals of public health are to make populations healthier and improve outcomes for those populations, according to Howard. It's done through a variety of ways, including health care services, disease surveillance -- such as Hepatitis A, E. coli and Salmonella outbreaks -- environmental hazard protection, data collection or promotion of healthy behaviors.

"We respond to disasters and assist communities in their time of recovery," he said. "When that tragic event happened in Marshall County High School, we had a public health worker on the field directing mental health services. … When there was a tornado a couple years back in eastern Kentucky, we were the health response to that."

Howard said the state public health system also regulates "up to a third" of Kentucky's economy through restaurants and other organizations, adding that much of public health work isn't seen.

"We're sort of behind-the-scenes," he said. "You don't see us until something is going wrong and there's an issue, but I want you to know your public health system employs over 2,500 people and is constantly working in the state, every day."

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