Member Spotlight: Lillian Shirley

November 09, 2017|1:48 p.m.| ASTHO Staff

Lillian ShirleyLillian Shirley is director for the Oregon Public Health Division. Before coming to Oregon, Shirley served as director of public health for the city of Boston and executive director of the Boston Health Commission, where she led the agency through the establishment, design, and organization of the new public health authority in Boston. A local and a national leader in advancing public health, Shirley has served on the boards of the Public Health Foundation, the Oregon Public Health Institute, and the Portland Sustainable Development Commission. In addition, Shirley was president of the National Association of City and County Health Officials. She received the National Public Health Institute’s Balderson Award and has been recognized by Research America as a public health hero.

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

Oregon’s governor, and director of the Oregon Health Authority at the time, Bruce Goldberg. They gave me the opportunity and privilege to serve as vice chair of the Oregon Health Policy Board for five years when I was director of Multnomah County Health Department. This was the governing board that crafted and implemented Oregon’s transformation work in healthcare. Once that was functioning, I came to this position to ensure that public health practice and population health would be integrated into Oregon’s understanding and expectations regarding how to create a healthy state for all citizens.

What is your morning ritual?

The alarm goes off at 5:15 and I make a pot of coffee. Three mornings out of the week I go to a yoga or Pilates class. I also make my “live forever smoothie” and review the day’s work plan and emails before (at least two days a week) walking to work.

What do you do to stay healthy?

I try to keep to that routine, eat healthy, and laugh a lot.

Where is your favorite vacation spot?

Sea Isle City, NJ, and Martha’s Vineyard, MA. I spend a week at each during the summer and go on a long hike overseas once every other year.

What are your favorite hobbies?

Hiking in Oregon’s mountains and coast, as well as reading and staying connected with far-flung family, friends, and colleagues. (I enjoy my garden but I can’t say I’m the gardener.)

What is your state doing to address the opioid epidemic?

We have made significant reductions in the quantity of opioids in circulation by engaging in a multisector approach across Oregon based on the CDC guidelines. We have also made great strides to include the clinical, recovery, and law enforcement communities.

How did your career in public health begin?

After working in community organizing and non-profit work that provided medical needs for countries in Southeast Asia, I went to nursing school. Working in labor and delivery at Boston City Hospital, I was asked to help bridge some misunderstandings between the medical staff and the newly arrived refugee population from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. I soon began working full-time in the tuberculosis program and was present at the beginning of the HIV epidemic in Boston. I just never left the field. I tell my staff that while I have gone out and gotten my degrees for the work I do, the most important things I’ve learned, in both public health and epidemiology, I learned in people’s kitchen while home visiting.

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

I love feeling tied to a mission I can believe in, one that matters for people, and all the while working with teams of individuals locally, in states, and nationally that share the same mission.

What are your primary public health priorities?

The first is implementing the Oregon law passed in 2017 that calls for the governmental public health systems, both state and local, to be modernized in accordance with the structure of the foundational capabilities and programs. The second is implementing Oregon’s Action Plan for Health: a framework that focuses on root causes of poor health outcomes, social determinants of health, health equity, and use of evidence-based approaches, such as our End HIV Oregon initiative, which is pursuing an end to new HIV infections in five years through a plan focused on testing, prevention, and treatment. The third priority is to lead Oregon’s Emergency Support Function 8 functions to make sure that our communities and hospitals are prepared for and working together in response to emerging threats and natural disasters, such as earthquakes, wildfires, and infectious disease outbreaks.

What is your vision for the future of public health?

My vision is that public health will use data and surveillance systems to achieve equitable health outcomes for all populations, and that we, as public health leaders, will hold ourselves accountable to what the data is showing us.

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned during your career in public health?

As we apply science and best practices to the work of public health, we must also trust the wisdom of the communities we serve. We must be transparent with our staff, communities, and stakeholders. If our communities and staff don’t trust us, we cannot lead. Finally, Dr. William Foege gave remarks at an ASTHO-NACCHO meeting in 2003 that I have kept with me. At that meeting, Dr. Williams quoted himself from an earlier talk, saying that “the philosophy of science is to find the truth, the philosophy of medicine is to use that truth for your patient, and the philosophy of public health is to use that science for everyone and social justice in health.” I try to put that statement into practice every day in the work I do.