By Susan Kirtz, MPH
Managing Editor, Texas Health Journal
Director of Special Projects, Center for Health Communication
The University of Texas at Austin
At the beginning of the new year and the start of the 86th Texas Legislature, the Texas Health Journal team is looking ahead to the health issues that will impact our state in 2019. We spoke with Dr. John Hellerstedt at the Texas Department of State Health Services about what’s on the horizon at DSHS in 2019, along with some of the leading health-related issues that will come before the Legislature.
Dr. Hellerstedt took on the position of DSHS Commissioner in January 2016, transitioning from his role as Chief Medical Officer at the Seton Family of Hospitals in Central Texas. He has also served as Medical Director for the Medicaid CHIP Division at the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. Click here to read more about Dr. Hellerstedt.
What initiatives are you excited about at the Texas Department of State Health Services in 2019?
TxEVER, our new vital records system, and its potential to improve the security and fidelity of vital statics data in Texas, especially related to death certificate data and the calculation of the official maternal mortality ratio for the state.
Creation of a funding mechanism to sustain our superb public health reference laboratory. A prime example of the lab’s value to the people of Texas is our newborn screening program, which is among the largest in the world. This essential service is able to identify 55 metabolic disorders which, if treated in a timely manner, can minimize or even completely eliminate the potential for serious permanent disability or death. As science advances, we hope to find ways to fund the lab so that Texas does not fall behind across the broad range of laboratory sciences so crucial for effectively advancing public and population health.
Our TexasAIM program, which enables clinical care teams at birthing hospitals to implement evidence-based patient care protocols (we call them “bundles”) that empower these teams to recognize and respond effectively to various emergency conditions before, during, or immediately after delivery. These bundles are developed by the Alliance for Innovation in Maternal Health (AIM). Texas hospitals, physicians, and nurses have responded enthusiastically to DSHS’ call to action, and more than 200 hospitals across the state have begun to adopt AIM bundles. They have saved lives in other states and will save lives in Texas. Additional resources will enable DSHS to quicken the pace of AIM implementation, including wider adoption of a new AIM bundle intended to reduce morbidity and mortality among mothers experiencing opioid use disorder.
We’re also continuing to make the health data we collect more easily accessible to local health departments, researchers, and the public through our Texas Health Data website. The more we know about health in Texas, the better we’ll be able to design interventions to improve health.
What have you learned about managing a large, complex organization in your time at DSHS?
Teamwork is the only path to success. I am proud of the skill, dedication, perseverance, and courage that DSHS personnel bring to their jobs. Many members of our team hold professional licenses or advanced degrees in highly technical fields. Every team member embraces our mission and applies their energies to get it done, even when in some cases doing so means long hours or even venturing into harm’s way, as was the case for many DSHS staff who traveled to communities in the midst of Hurricane Harvey. Every job at DSHS is important, since highly reliable performance of every job is needed for the team’s mission to succeed.
What do you anticipate will be the top health-related priorities for DSHS in the 2019 Legislative Session?
Furthering our efforts to reduce maternal morbidity and mortality.
Ensuring that Texas continuously reviews and improves its capabilities and capacities to ensure health security, whether in the face of outbreaks of infectious disease or natural or man-made disaster. This work includes the everyday functions of public health across the state, not just the events that make headlines. We’re good, but we know we can be even better. Our growing and prosperous Texas deserves nothing less.
Bolstering our ability to respond to all types of infectious diseases by improving our IT system that lets us track and analyze disease outbreaks and trends. We have a particular focus on tuberculosis, which has proven difficult to eliminate because the bacteria can lie dormant in the body for months or years before making someone sick. Additional resources would allow DSHS and local health departments to follow up on more TB cases and offer people therapy so they won’t get sick later and potentially spread TB to their family, neighbors, and others in their communities.
Who has been one of your most inspiring teachers or mentors?
I like to think I’ve learned something from a very broad range of folks I have encountered over my lifetime. I am most inspired by those who shared with me their sense of wonder at the world and their commitment to the dignity and flourishing of the human person – mind, body, and soul.
Looking back, what advice would you give yourself at the beginning of your career in public service?
Never step off the narrow path – always speak the truth as you have been given the grace to know the truth. Always be a servant leader – a leader who trusts, appreciates, and lifts up the good will, talent and energy of the team.