Illinois' public health now relies on the click of a button

  • By Alex Parker
  • Staff Writer
  • April 24, 2009 @ 7:00 AM

The future of Illinois' health care relies on collaboration and technology, say leaders of three of the state's largest health agencies.

Terry Mason, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, Stephen Martin, COO of the Cook County Department of Public Health, and Damon Arnold, head of the Illinois Department of Public Health, spoke yesterday at the University of Illinois in the Chicago's School of Public Health Auditorium at a forum entitled, "The State of Public Health in Illinois".

Each laid out his vision of how his agency is dealing with a tight economy and using technology.

The challenges are accentuated by computer systems that Arnold described as "dinosaurs."

As Mason described his efforts to reshape CDPH since he took over in 2006, he explained how far the department had come.

"Our budget process use to start with a stack of paper like this," he said, gesturing with hands a foot apart. Under his leadership, he said, staff members were taught the value of technology, numerous data management systems were put in place and Mason says the department is well on its way to reaching its medical and administrative goals set for 2011.

The department took large, important steps, he says.

"Much of our management at the health department and much of the staff had been there pre-PC," Mason said. Ideas for innovation, he says, had been "squashed."

Martin said the same tactic of throwing institutional inertia, as he called it, to the wind is helping the county health department adapt, as well.

He said ending the department's suburban family care management program ensured a solvent budget, and made staff members realize they can succeed at other tasks.

"If you put that feeling out there - that you're the only game in town - it could really jeopardize our department when our mission changes," he says. That mindset permeates the department's goals of more workforce education and job training, Martin said.

He warned the audience, comprised of medical students, that job training will be key to their success.

 "We're not going to need 10 people to do two jobs. We're going to need one person to do 20 jobs," he says.

Arnold trumpeted some of IDPH's accomplishments, including the statistic that no babies in Illinois were born with the HIV virus last year. However, a UIC medical student disputed that, saying five were born at UIC.

But he echoed Mason and Martin with a message of collaboration and investment in people.

"It takes a coordinated effort between many, many people to implement and keep public health going," he says.

The state faces many public health challenges, including many self-inflicted hardships, including obesity, addiction and suicide. He urged students in the audience to listen to patients, a key element in reducing health care disparity.

Arnold noted some of Illinois' most progressive health care policies, such as its breast cancer and cervical cancer treatment program, has seen a 31 percent boost in participation.

But he and others warned that public health should be about prevention, not curing all of the state's health problems.

"I think we don't have to stay, necessarily, in the direct service role, when we have so many competing priorities," Mason says.

"We have to address the underlying causes societally," Arnold said, referring to socio-economic factors that contribute to medical hardships.


Daily News Staff Writer Alex Parker covers public health. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 17, or alex [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.