ASTHO’s Member Engagement Team Helps Health Officials Become Transformational Leaders

April 06, 2017|12:32 p.m.| ASTHO Staff

Engaging Health Officials: Then

As ASTHO celebrates its 75th anniversary and prepares to host its annual meeting in September focused on the theme of “Celebrating the Power of State and Territorial Public Health,” it is important to remember why ASTHO was established and how the association continues to serve the unique needs of state and territorial health officials.

In 1879, a group of health officials assembled in Nashville at the Sanitary Council of the Mississippi Valley to discuss how to control the deadly spread of cholera after the Civil War. These officials continued to meet informally and, over time, the idea of creating a national organization emerged with the realization that health officials were confronting issues critical to the nation’s health and safety and needed a distinct entity to advocate for their work and serve as a coordinated voice for state governmental public health. These health officials were on the frontlines of urgent public health issues, preventing and protecting communities against deadly diseases like small pox and yellow fever. In fact, challenges concerning interstate quarantine regulations sparked one of the first working conferences for health officials in 1908.

While these working meetings provided a forum for health officials across the country to work with their peers to learn, discuss, and solve challenging public health issues together, the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935 formally established health departments and became the catalyst for ASTHO’s incorporation. Health officials wanted an independent organization that would convene and advocate for the needs of state governmental public health leaders. On March 23, 1942, under the leadership of Arkansas state health official William B. Grayson, ASTHO was officially formed. ASTHO continues to uphold the foundational and organizing principles of transformational leadership, advocacy, and capacity building to support and serve its members today.

Engaging Health Officials: Now

Just as in 1879, today’s state and territorial health officials hold one of the most complex and demanding jobs in government. As leaders, they provide key, transformational leadership that impacts the health of an entire state or territory. Health officials are responsible for ensuring that the public health system is effective across a broad range of issues, often in rapidly changing political environments.

To be successful, health officials must be able to lead in many areas and work with peers, both inside and outside of government; work within and understand the state or territory’s political climate; manage agencies with hundreds to thousands of staff and programs that are often controversial; respond rapidly to emergency situations; and convene, build, and maintain relationships with cross-sector leaders to promote health, prevent the leading causes of death, disease, and injury, and protect the public.

ASTHO’s member engagement team coordinates and manages the State Health Leadership Initiative (SHLI), a leadership development program that has served state and territorial health officials for the past 17 years. Since its inception, over 200 state and territorial health officials have strengthened and accelerated their professional growth as policymakers, administrators, and advocates for the public’s health and safety.

Considering SHLI’s successes and looking toward the future, ASTHO, in coordination with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, spent the last two years redesigning the SHLI program to build on past accomplishments while adding new components tailored to today’s demands of leading state and territorial health agencies. The program is now grounded in individual leadership and team skill-based competencies; supports health officials in leading collaboratively across sectors to create a culture of health in communities, states, and across the nation; and promotes peer-to-peer learning through coaching and mentoring.

The program also prepares health officials for future national or health systems leadership roles. Many of ASTHO’s former members go on to serve in key leadership roles in federal government, such as the U.S. Surgeon General and the HHS Assistant Secretary for Health, as well as roles in national and state foundations, academic institutions and schools of public health, public and private payers, and businesses.

Many former members are active in ASTHO’s Alumni Society. ASTHO alumni were instrumental in redesigning SHLI, bringing a wealth of experience and knowledge to the process. Alumni also serve as mentors, policy committee members, faculty, strategic advisors, and advocates for public health. In the coming year, ASTHO will build a robust inventory of its current and former members’ leadership skills and experiences to quickly leverage their expertise to help support other members who are facing unique challenges.

In addition to state and territorial health officials, ASTHO supports the entire health agency leadership team, including a network of 21 affiliated organizations representing an array of public health leaders who work directly in state and territorial health agencies. Top leaders from these organizations serve on the affiliate council, which meets monthly to share information on major initiatives and to identify opportunities for alignment to better support states and territories in their efforts to improve governmental public health. In 2017, the affiliate council has prioritized coordinating on federal advocacy efforts to highlight the importance of investing in the public health infrastructure. For example, ASTHO hosted a congressional briefing on March 9 at the U.S. Capitol, featuring health officials and affiliate leaders who discussed critical public health issues, such as the response to the opioid epidemic, environmental health hazards, the Zika virus, and the potential impact of ACA repeal and replace efforts on states and territories.

Looking Forward

Mary Selecky, the former Washington State secretary of health and a mentor to many of her peers, often advises other health officials to “know thy self, know one another, and support one another.” ASTHO has created a powerful support network that continues to withstand the test of time and is as important as it was in 1879 for health officials facing a cholera outbreak as it is today for health officials confronting issues, such as Zika, the opioid crisis, and the threat of significant funding cuts to our core public health infrastructure. ASTHO’s member engagement team joins the entire association to proudly support these transformational leaders and amplify their voices for the next 75 years!