AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Is Texas ready for the next big public health threat? As we enter a new year, state health experts weighed in on what the state can learn from disease outbreaks like Zika and Ebola, and natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey, as officials work to keep Texans safe.
The four most recent commissioners of the Texas Department of State Health Services made a rare appearance together to discuss their experiences leading the department. Each panelist weighed in on the threats that affect every aspect of our lives.
“Every single day from the moment you wake up, public health had something to do with your ability to go to the next step,” said Dr. Eduardo Sanchez, Texas Commissioner of Health from 2001 to 2006.
“You get up and you go to the bathroom, plumbing systems, that’s public health. You use the water that A, is clean and B, is chlorinated, public health. You brush your teeth because that’s a public health thing that we say to folks,” added Sanchez. “You open your refrigerator and you consume food, that you’re hoping isn’t going to make you sick when you eat it, well it doesn’t happen magically ladies and gentlemen, it happens because of public health.”
Dr. Patti Patterson, who served as state health commissioner from 2000 to 2001, said state health leaders are always working to stay ahead of the next challenge.
“There’s always constant threats,”said Patterson, a professor of pediatrics at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center College of Medicine. “They could be hurricanes, it could be infectious diseases, there’s always the underlying threat to health.”
The panel also featured current commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt, who took the helm in 2016. He outlined the department’s priorities for lawmakers with the recent start of the legislative session. Those priorities include maintaining the state’s public health laboratory, slowing the spread of Tuberculosis, bolstering the state’s response to viral outbreaks, shrinking the number of new mothers who die from birthing complications, and increasing the ability for the public to access public health data in Texas.
Hellerstedt said tackling any one issue means getting the entire population involved, like limiting childhood obesity, for example.
“It’s going to take the schools, it’s going to take the media, it’s going to take public health, it’s going to take doctors, it’s going to take philanthropy, it’s going to take all sorts of planning around those kinds of initiatives in order to change things for the better,” said Hellerstedt.
Health initiatives have a broader effect than just on a person’s wellness, former commissioner Dr. David Lakey (2007-2015) said. He explained it also has a wider impact on business and regional economy.
“Businesses, as they decide where they are going to locate, they’ll look at health data, ‘I want to go to Community A versus B because it’s a healthier community,'” Lakey stated, adding that health issues don’t discriminate based on political affiliation.
“This isn’t a left or right issue, being able to have a healthy society,” he said.
Patterson also mentioned that Texans can impact health just as much as any state agency. “Exercise, we all talk about that, everybody probably made a New Year’s resolution about it, and it’s already January 14, so probably half the people have dropped out on that,” she said. “Those things make a difference.”
According to state data, the Texas Department of State Health Services budget in Fiscal Year 2018 was $779,733,313. Approximately 66 percent of that total budget was state-funded, while the remaining 33 percent came from federal funding.
Watch the panel discussion presented by the Texas Medical Association below: