Member Spotlight: Virginia Pressler

February 16, 2017|2:27 p.m.| ASTHO Staff

Virginia (Ginny) Pressler, MD, is the director of health for the Hawaii Department of Health. As director, Pressler oversees the department’s operations and sits on several key boards and committees. As part of her duties, she also oversees environmental health, behavioral health, and a number of health-related agencies within the health department.

Was there an experience or motivating factor that compelled you to become a state health official?

I felt I could make a difference. When the opportunity presented itself, many people asked me to accept the position. I said no on multiple occasions, but finally realized I should say yes.

Have you held any additional positions at the health department?

From 1999-2002, I served as deputy director of the Health Resources Administration at the department of health.

How did your career in public health begin?

I left private practice and an academic position in surgery to “fix” healthcare in 1993. Soon after, I became engaged in healthcare reform, served as president and CEO of a health plan, and subsequently accepted a position as deputy director of the Health Resources Administration at the Hawaii Department of Health. This was in 1999, when the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement was taking shape. I took the position because millions of dollars were being put into prevention and chronic disease management and that appealed to me.

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

I love having an impact on people. Public health offers the ability to create real change. I also appreciate working with so many dedicated and knowledgeable people who are effective at improving lives.

What is your morning ritual?

I rise at 4:30 in the morning with my husband and coffee ready. I put on my walking shoes and we walk up our hill and back. That is three-and-a-half miles and a 1,000 ft. elevation change each way. Afterwards, I do some yoga and pilates. For breakfast, I eat whole grain cereal with fresh berries and plain Greek yogurt while I read the paper. I’m out the door for work around 6:45 a.m.

What do you do to stay healthy?

I exercise every day and remain physically active during the day. I use a fitness ball as my chair. I eat healthfully and sleep for eight hours a night. In the evening, I drink wine with my husband. And I always try to laugh a lot.

Where is your favorite vacation spot?

Home. I enjoy stand-up paddling in the ocean on the weekends. When we do travel, we avoid cities and instead choose active outdoor destinations.

Why is health important to you?

It makes me feel better and think more clearly. I also feel the need to be a good role model, and I plan to enjoy retirement—if I ever do! I wish I could get everyone to live healthier.

What are your favorite hobbies?

I enjoy hiking, stand-up paddling, bicycling, and reading.

What do you find most challenging about public health?

The needs far exceed the resources. I wish we could eliminate adverse childhood experiences and give every child a healthy opportunity to succeed. Also, the political grandstanding that supersedes good decision making and collaboration by some legislators is very discouraging and demoralizing. It wastes time.

What are your primary public health priorities?

  • Primary prevention and moving upstream to address healthy babies, families, and communities through changing policies and environment.
  • Establishing One Key Question, as well as Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment (for substance use and behavioral health) as the standard of care for both Medicaid and private pay.
  • Integrating behavioral health and the social determinants of health into primary care is a priority for me, as well as promoting telehealth for primary care, specialty care, and dentistry.

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

I was so thankful to have funding from the Master Settlement Agreement in 1999 to invest in tobacco control, physical activity, nutrition, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Currently, I am thankful to have a supportive governor and a superb team to actually accomplish so much more than I expected. I am also thankful for good relationships with key legislative decisionmakers so that we can make things happen.