Member Spotlight: John Hellerstedt
John Hellerstedt, MD, is commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, one of the state’s largest agencies. As commissioner, Hellerstedt oversees disease prevention and disaster preparedness, community health services, environmental and consumer safety, state mental health facilities, and the state’s regulatory programs.
Was there someone who influenced you to lead a health department?
Yes. The executive commissioner of the Texas Health and Human Services System invited me to apply. He was my boss when I was the Medicaid and CHIP medical director for Texas. I had a great experience in public service and was eager to return. In addition, two of my physician predecessors praised its value.
What do you love most about the public health work you do?
At its core, public health protects every person in our state, every day of the year. This is only possible because of the amazing folks who are part of our agency. People who work in public health share a calling to improve the health of their entire community.
What do you find most challenging about public health?
Doing the most with the resources available. I am continually impressed by the innovations I have seen our team implement in order to get the job done.
What is your vision for the future of public health?
I strongly believe that governmental public health agencies should reshape their image to something more along the lines of population health, rather than just traditional public health. In my mind, population health means learning how to improve the health of communities based upon various demographic criteria, (e.g., pregnant women, newborns, folks in east Texas). In contrast, traditional public health is about identifying and treating specific medical conditions, (e.g., TB, STIs, diabetes). Both approaches are absolutely necessary and complementary, but I believe public health agencies should be intentional about defining their expertise and value from the population health perspective. Public health is about what we have; population health is about who we are.
What is something you’re most thankful to have been a part of during your career in public health?
I am told I am the first commissioner to visit all of our regional offices, and certainly the first to do so in their first year on the job. It has left a lasting impression, allowing me to articulate the vast reach and impact of this agency. For instance, when I was in El Paso, I was closer to LA than to Houston. When I was in Lubbock, I was closer to three other state capitols than my own, in Austin. Alpine, Texas, is the biggest city in the biggest county in the biggest state in the lower 48.
What are the most important lessons you’ve learned during your career in public health?
Stick to the facts. Leaders must trust that you are providing the very best science you can bring to bear on the policy decisions they must make.
What is your morning ritual?
“Wake up, get out of bed, drag a comb across my head…” The Beatles. Actually, I get to the office between 6-7 a.m. most days, to have an hour or two to get caught up before I get “caught up” by the swirl of the day.
What do you do to stay healthy?
I use the stationary bike and I go to the gym.
Where is your favorite vacation spot?
The Frio River, Texas.
Why is health important to you?
It staves off one of life’s two inevitabilities; the other being taxes.
What are your favorite hobbies?
The New York Times crossword puzzles.