Member Spotlight: Howard Zucker

September 07, 2017|12:47 p.m.| ASTHO Staff

Howard Zucker, MD, JDHoward Zucker, MD, JD, is commissioner of health of the New York State Department of Health. The mission of the New York State Department of Health is to protect, improve, and promote the health, productivity, and well-being of all New Yorkers. The department provides services for individuals and families, providers and professionals, and health facilities regarding public health issues statewide.

What was the experience or motivating factor that compelled you to become a state health official?

I wanted to get involved in public service, particularly public health. I had a strong interest in addressing problems from a population health perspective, which came from my work in the federal government in Washington, D.C. From there, one thing led to the next and I transitioned into working on international health issues in Geneva. When I returned to the United States, I went back to clinical medicine, but I was still interested in the public service arena. Ultimately, I was offered the opportunity to serve as the first deputy commissioner of this health department. Sometimes things take unusual twists and turns. My predecessor left and Gov. Andrew Cuomo asked if I would step in as acting commissioner. Ultimately, I became commissioner. 

Was there someone who influenced you to lead a health department?

I don’t think there is necessarily any one individual. Throughout my professional journey in medicine and policy, I have observed the leadership styles of those shaping public health policy, be it the HHS secretary, CDC director, FDA commissioner, or others in international organizations and NGOs. Recognizing how their roles and leadership styles can shape public policy and improve the lives of millions was what influenced me the most.

What is your morning ritual?

When I was practicing anesthesiology, I learned to treasure the early morning hours. I still like that time when others are asleep and I can have some time alone to think without distractions. I usually listen to NPR and try to have a small, healthy breakfast. 

Before I start my commute, I take a quick look at my emails so that I can make calls about time sensitive issues on my way to work. If things are quiet, I will listen to a book on tape. I just finished listening to The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency. Before that, I listened to Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon. I prefer non-fiction, particularly biographies, because they give insight into how people overcome adversity throughout their lives.

What do you do to stay healthy?

I try to take care of both my physical and mental health. For physical health, I try to walk frequently and eat healthy, such as fruits, vegetables, and fish. But I also like orange slices covered in dark chocolate!

For mental health, I think it is very important to find down time. For me, this means making time to detach from devices, whenever possible. I also try to keep things in perspective. As a critical care pediatrician, I have literally seen life and death emergencies. Just because we are reachable at all hours does not mean everything should be treated as an emergency. Keeping things in context is crucial to being able to function efficiently in any high-pressure role.

Where is your favorite vacation spot? 

There is travel and then there is vacation. For travel, it’s Italy. I love the food, the lifestyle, the art and architecture, the beauty of the scenery, and the hospitable nature of the people. To borrow a phrase from the French, the Italians are the essence of joie de vivre.

For vacation, I like to go to a spa and unwind. In the role of commissioner, or for that matter, even when I was practicing medicine, it is common to develop decision fatigue. A spa limits the number of decisions you have to make in one day. Now that is a vacation! 

What are your favorite hobbies?

I like writing, drawing, and comedy. I used to take magic lessons, piano lessons, and private flying lessons, but somehow, I have lost the ability to turn 24 hours into 36. I guess it’s called aging. 

How did your career in public health begin?

I started my career in medicine and then went to law school with an interest in fixing the fractured healthcare system. Like life in general, things just evolved. I was fortunate to be selected to serve for a year as a fellow in Washington D.C. The fellows program began one week prior to September 11, 2001. I worked for the secretary of Health and Human Services and the world changed that day, as did my next four and a half years in federal government. 

What do you find most challenging about public health?

To answer that question, it is worth thinking about the phrase: “public health.” I do not think most of the public understands what we do to improve their health. Most notably, I don’t think many realize the crucial role of government in maintaining our health. In a culture that measures results in minutes, hours or days, it is hard to explain that many successes in public health have to be measured in years. To be a part of this profession, one must be comfortable knowing that the impact of their work may become evident long after they have moved on. We are always struggling to support initiatives that can achieve sustainable impact but may not translate into short timeframes—and immediacy is something that is expected in our society today.

What are three things public health leaders can do to educate and engage the communities they serve?

Trust. In order to succeed in government and certainly in a leadership role, you must develop trust with the people you are caring for. As a pediatric anesthesiologist, I saw this every day with families. When I showed up on the scene, it was five minutes before the surgery. It was my responsibility to make sure that the parents trusted that I was going to look out for what was most precious to them, even though they knew nothing about me. Trust comes from conveying confidence, demonstrating compassion, and showing commitment to the job you do. This is no different in public health. The public must trust that you are doing right by them. If you are not, just like the two-year-old child and his or her parents, they will know. Public health leaders can ensure there is trust between them and the communities they serve.

Good messaging. Communication is central to our role in explaining complex issues in terms that people can understand. We must make science, and the rationale behind the messages we send, clear and concise. We must be open to dialogue and available to repeat our messages as often as necessary until that message is understood. We mustn’t be dictatorial as that does not work, but we must be convincing. We must also base our answers in fact. 

Cultural competence. No one person understands all cultures, and if we are to achieve advances in population health, we must start by understanding the framework from where people come from. You must try very hard to stand in the shoes of those who need your help—the same people that we want to help! Humility is a virtue that is very important in public health.

What is something you’re most thankful to have been a part of during your career in public health?

I am most thankful to be a part of a large team dedicated to achieving goals, whether it involves work in international health, national health policy, or the many projects and programs I am presently involved in with state health policy. I think there is a way to maintain individuality while still being part of a broader team. The department of health is one part of a greater team—and we are working on how health issues can be incorporated into our other state agencies. 

What do you love most about the public health work you do?

I help 20 million New Yorkers every day. I recognize that I do not see it in the same way I saw it in the operating room or the ICU because it’s not a one-on-one impact, but I know in my heart that our team changes people’s lives. That is the best one can ask for in a job. I treasure it!