Member Spotlight: Jill Hunsaker Ryan

September 16, 2019|9:39 a.m.| ASTHO Staff

Jill Hunsaker Ryan, MPHJill Hunsaker Ryan, MPH, is a public health professional with nearly 25 years of experience in the field. In January, she was appointed by newly-elected Colorado Governor Jared Polis to become the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Prior to her appointment, Director Ryan was a two-term county commissioner, where she focused on determinants of health like affordable housing, healthcare, early childhood development, transit-oriented development, environmental justice, climate action, and mental health services. Director Ryan has a background in health planning and epidemiology, and in 2001 she wrote the state’s first assessment of health disparities, which subsequently led to the creation of an Office of Health Disparities, now called the Office of Health Equity. Director Ryan previously served as manager of the Eagle County Public Health Agency and as vice president of the Colorado Board of Health as a governor's appointee.

What was the experience or motivating factor that compelled you to become a state health official?
I wanted to work for Colorado’s new governor, Jared Polis, whose goals include achieving 100 percent renewable energy, improving air quality, providing free full day kindergarten and early childhood education, saving people money on healthcare, and improving the mental health system.

Was there someone who influenced you to lead a health department?
I have had several incredible mentors during my career. However, I would say that working for two of the state’s former chief medical officers, Dr. Ned Calonge and Dr. Richard Hoffman, really shaped how I look at the field and practice public health, especially from a place of science and evidence-based practice.

What is your morning ritual?
Wake up, work out, have coffee and breakfast, answer emails, go to the office. Days that I can ride my bike to work make me particularly happy.

What do you do to stay healthy?
I maintain a good work/life balance that helps me stay mentally positive and focused. I run, swim, and bike regularly, and am intentional about being present and having quality time with my family on the weekends. Fitting in more yoga is my goal for the year.

What are your favorite hobbies?
Playing with my 7-year-old son, going to concerts with my husband, skiing (there are three ski resorts within minutes of my house), and doing 5Ks or sprint triathlons just for fun.

What is the best part of your week?
I look forward to Mondays and seeing my colleagues and getting excited about the awesome work we are doing. I also really look forward to spending time with my family on the weekends—going to amusement parks and farmers markets, biking, hiking, camping, and river rafting.

How is your state helping to build healthier, more resilient communities? Describe any steps you are taking in general or as part of the 2019 ASTHO President’s Challenge.
Colorado’s public health system is decentralized. The state health department supports local public health agencies that serve 64 counties. Still, supporting communities in leading solutions that are place-based and meaningful is the culture of our public health system in Colorado. At the state level, this means assuring diverse representation on our boards and commissions, and otherwise integrating the consumer’s voice in our planning, while also funding culturally competent community-based organizations to provide local services. Likewise, local public health agencies enlist thought leaders and community-based providers in program and policy planning and service provision for populations that have been historically disenfranchised, marginalized, or who are experiencing the cumulative impacts of environmental contamination.

What are your primary public health priorities?
The governor has given the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment four “Wildly Important Goals”:

  1. Improving air quality and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
  2. Increasing the immunization rates for kindergartners.
  3. Increasing the number of Coloradans at a healthy weight.
  4. Reducing the suicide rate.

What has been your state’s biggest public health success in the past year?

  1. Several pieces of legislation aimed at improving air quality, including reducing ozone and greenhouse gas emissions, passed last legislative session. At the same time, an area including Denver and parts of the Front Range is being classified as “serious, non-attainment” for the 2008 ozone standard by the EPA. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has a response plan with a very aggressive rule-making schedule. A zero-emissions vehicle standard was passed in August, with plans for additional rules to regulate the oil and gas industry to begin in December.
  2. The department has developed a Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) action plan. The plan identifies new authorities needed for testing and site regulation that may include standard setting. It also includes resource identification to promote a statewide survey through testing, and mount an effective response to eliminate routes of exposure and ongoing contamination. We will start by focusing on smaller water systems, private wells, and airports, and continue to work with the Air Force and Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act sites that have already been identified. Our survey of airport usage of Class B and some Class C firefighting foams containing PFAS must be completed by the of this year, based on legislation passed last spring.

What do you love most about the public health work you do?
I love our field’s ability to “diagnose” the community’s heath through robust surveillance systems. Whether it’s a vehicle crash data system, immunization registry, syndromic surveillance, communicable disease registry, the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, prescription drug monitoring, death data, or other sources, the amount of information at our fingertips to help mount a response and improve health is very cool!