Terry Allan has nearly three decades of experience in local public health. Allan served as NACCHO President in 2013–2014 and has attended 13 NACCHO Annual conferences. In the following post, he describes how the education, relationships, and perspective he gains at NACCHO Annual fuel his work all year long.
I’m a native Clevelander so I am happy to be serving the community at the Cuyahoga County Board of Health. We serve a population of 850,000. I’ve been here for 28 years, working on a wide range of public health programs before becoming the health commissioner in 2004. During my career, I’ve had the opportunity to work with NACCHO at the national level on a variety of issues. I met some well-respected folks early in my career who talked about the value of NACCHO. They shared the importance of being connected to your national peers and how those relationships often open up new opportunities to learn about programs and current trends and to understand the trajectory of public health and where local practice is headed. Those initial conversations with fellow local health officials got me involved. I joined the board and participated on a number of committees. Eventually, in 2012, I ran and was elected president-elect and became president in 2013.
Being elected president by your peers is a very humbling and important responsibility. I’m always amazed by the capacity of health departments—whether they are large or small, urban or rural, or have large populations or small populations. The folks who are engaged at the national level bring to the discussions an energy that is palpable, positive, and generative. I think that’s important, particularly in these very challenging times. For me, recognizing that we all face the same types of challenges and work to overcome them is very valuable, creating a national sense of solidarity. My presidency was a very busy and rewarding time. Now I have the honor of representing NACCHO on a variety of committees at the Institute of Medicine, the Public Health Accreditation Board, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s been a very personally fulfilling experience.
Gaining a New Perspective from the Balcony
The book Leadership on the Line by Ronald A. Hefitz and Marty Linksy talks about the two sides of the coin in the work that we do in public health—the “dance floor” and the “balcony.” The dance floor represents the day-to-day activities that we’re involved in at our departments and in communities across the country. We have lots of partners in those dances, representing a wide variety of collaborative efforts. Oftentimes, the orchestration of those day-to-day activities can be all-absorbing, making it difficult to gain important perspective on how the whole system is performing. Consequently, it’s equally important to make time to recharge your batteries and gain the necessary perspective by stepping away from the dance floor and heading up to the balcony described by Hefitz. That may involve taking time to check in with your peers, participating in professional associations, contacting experts in the field about trends and best practices, and feeding the part of your work that can be overlooked amidst the flurry of the moment. It’s essentially creating time to see the whole board—exploring where public health practice is going, learning about the legislative issues and activities that are developing, hearing from leaders about emerging issues and perspectives. From that vantage point, we begin to recognize that all of us face the same challenges, like budget prioritization, workforce development, entrepreneurship, accreditation, and quality improvement. Those moments when we step away from the fray, which our SACCHO meetings and NACCHO Annual provide, are vital experiences for public health professionals in keeping pace with our field.
People may be thinking about the investment or time and funds to attend NACCHO Annual in determining whether or not to attend. In my view, following the instructive analogy, you can’t have the dance floor without the balcony; you need both. You’ll have the chance to share and refine your ideas as you interact with the national experts. Having briefly stepped away, we return to our communities armed after these national meetings with lots of great ideas, contacts, energy, and affirmation. It helps us recognize that we all share the same hopes and commitments toward improving the health status of those we serve.
Exploring Evidence-Based Practices
NACCHO Annual is also an excellent opportunity to expand your awareness of evidence-based practices. I think it’s important to encourage your staff to submit abstracts for sharing sessions, apply for the Model Practices Awards, and become active participants in advancing the collective practice of public health. Our health department has had the good fortune of receiving several Model Practice Awards over the years. Your staff get the acknowledgement they deserve for their hard work on center stage among their peers from across the country. It’s a big motivator for them. One of the most rewarding experiences I had as president was giving those awards out to programs, departments, and colleagues from all over the country.
Creating Lasting Relationships
NACCHO Annual opens a door to reconnect with old friends and form new alliances. I’d encourage everyone to attend the receptions and stop in the hallways to interact with colleagues from across the nation. Don’t pass up the opportunity to meet someone new. You can learn something from everyone and often it’s particularly useful to hear from departments that are similarly structured. There are different political dynamics and unique challenges inherent in every department. If you’re in a small department in the middle of a rural county and you feel isolated at times, you will find that you’re anything but isolated once you get to NACCHO Annual. Among representatives from a couple thousand health departments, you’re inevitably going to run into people who are in circumstances similar to yours. I don’t think anything feeds your motivation more than sharing those conversations with peers. You’ll build relationships with people you rely on later and bend their ear on just about anything—and they’ll likely feel the same way about you.
I often refer to NACCHO Annual as the gift that keeps on giving. Well after the meeting, the relationships that you develop and the education and resources that you’ve gained will be gifts that you’ll carry with you over the next year and beyond. I usually find that right when I feel my tank is running low from daily challenges, NACCHO Annual rolls around again and fills it up. For me, it’s a priceless opportunity that I encourage everyone to take advantage of; you won’t regret it!
Thank you, Terry! For more information about NACCHO Annual, visit http://nacchoannual.org.