Member Spotlight: Local Health Official Doug Mathis Discusses Why Building Relationships Has Been the Highlight of His Career

doug-mathisBy Taylarr Lopez, Communications Specialist, NACCHO

NACCHO’s Member Spotlight series features interviews with local health department leaders and staff about their careers in public health. This entry features Doug Mathis, MA, Administrator of the Henry County Health Department in New Castle, IN. Mr. Mathis has served on NACCHO committees including the Profile Workgroup, the Ebola Virtual Situation Room, and the Media Champions Network. Mr. Mathis shares his story below.

Tell us about your career path in public health.

When I came into the workforce out of graduate school, I honestly had hoped to work in a higher education setting. My wife and I were newlyweds, having been married for just a few weeks, and we were both interviewing for different jobs. She was offered a teaching position in rural Indiana. I eventually found myself working for the State of Indiana for about four years and the position exposed me to some public health work. Before long, a position became available where we lived, and I was hired as the administrator in 1998. I’ve been with the Henry County Health Department ever since.

What are some of the highlights of your career in public health? What makes the work that you do worthwhile?

The relationships with people are highlights of my career. Working with people like the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Foundation President and CEO Dr. Judy Monroe, Indiana State Health Commissioner Dr. Jerome Adams, and former NACCHO President Bobby Pestronk has been enjoyable and instructive. What’s worthwhile is building things that last; those can be personal and organizational relationships. Grant funding is spent, trails and facilities are built, but investing in and valuing people can have unlimited growth.

What challenges are you or your health department currently facing?

Challenges we’ve encountered include financial losses due to federal, state, and local policies. In Indiana, during Governor Mitch Daniels’s second term, the legislature made property tax caps part of the state’s constitution. In Indiana, local public health is principally funded through local property taxes. We are an old Chrysler town. At one time, the company plant employed thousands but it closed over 12 years ago. Many other smaller manufacturers have also closed. Between the job losses, the 2008 housing bubble, and property tax caps, we’ve experienced unprecedented losses in revenue. Former Governors Daniels and Pence and current Governor Holcomb don’t favor federal grants. As a result, Indiana remains near the bottom in funding for local public health. Our lack of resources is our biggest challenge, which makes addressing emerging public health challenges all the more difficult.

What is the biggest change you’ve seen in public health since you’ve started in this field?

The accreditation movement really seems to be moving us toward consistent conversations with our state and federal partners. Although funding is yet to be tied to local health departments that are successfully accredited, getting us to all look into continuous quality improvement is worthy. And, getting small and medium-sized health departments to attempt to make evidence-based decisions in programming and funding is an important result that’s beginning to be consistently demonstrated. Also, we’ve successfully met large-scale challenges in preparedness, mass vaccination programs, and outbreak interventions for diseases like Ebola and Zika.

How are you positioning yourself and/or your health department for the future?

Personally, I’m resigning as the administrator and moving back into a direct service role where I can invest my energy and time positively. I’ll soon be an Environmental Health Specialist/Health Educator and I’m looking forward to the change. I had the discussion about a change late last year with our health board and health officer.

As an organization, we’ve got to find a way to provide, if not fund, more chronic disease prevention programming in our county. I’ll be partnering with our local hospital, YMCA, and community action agency to attempt to continue leveraging these relationships to expand our chronic disease programming in the future.

How long have you been a member of NACCHO and what value do you find in belonging?

That’s a good question. I was a presenter at the 2009 NACCHO Annual conference in Orlando, but had been a member for some time. We were among the first local health departments with a Medical Reserve Corps in Indiana. I was elected to NACCHO’s Board of Director’s in 2011 and will be finishing my third two-year term this summer. Again, it’s been the relationships I’ve made with not only board members but NACCHO’s staff that I’ve found most enriching. NACCHO has dedicated, service-oriented staff. Who else exists to help local health departments exclusively?

What do you enjoy doing in your time away from work?

First, my family. My oldest daughter will be graduating high school this spring and moving away and breaking my heart in the fall! My son will soon be 10 years old and he should have his own Nickelodeon show. We also have a previous exchange student who has moved back in with us, and another one that we are hosting until he finds a host family for the next 11 months. Unfortunately, our youngest daughter died in 2005 when she was three and we miss her constantly. Other than family and work, I run to prepare for half marathons, and I’m hoping to increase my training so I can run my first full marathon this fall before I turn 51. I also golf, and am probably around a nine handicap.

Thank you so much, Doug! For more interviews in the series, visit NACCHO Voice Member Spotlight.