Member Spotlight: Chief Executive Officer George Roberts Discusses the Importance of Community Engagement and Public Health Value Messaging

Interview by 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 interview features George Roberts, Jr., MHA, FACHE, Chief Executive Officer of the Northeast Texas Public Health District. He is also Vice President on NACCHO’s Board of Directors. Below he discusses the importance of building relationships at the national, state, and local levels and highlights the department’s successful weight loss initiative, Lighten Up East Texas.

Tell us about your career path in public health.

My journey to the world of Public Health began with my Education. I received a B.B.A. from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX and went on to earn a Master in Health Administration (MHA) from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri.  After an Administrative Residency at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, I accepted a position with the Baylor Administrative Team.  Four years later I was asked to become the Vice President of Operations at Mother Frances Hospital in Tyler. After six years at Mother Frances Hospital, I was hired as the CEO of Henderson Memorial Hospital in Henderson, Texas where I served for more than 12 years.

During my career as a Hospital Administrator, I was honored to serve on state boards where I helped address the growing need for health care in our country. The power of preventive health care to address this problem captured my attention, as well as Public Health as the vehicle to help. After extensive research, I was asked to lead the Northeast Texas Public Health District (NET HEALTH) in Tyler, Texas. I so appreciate the opportunity NET Health has provided for me to work on public health policies and strategies on a local, state, and national level to promote health and healthy living!

What programs or initiatives that your health department has implemented have made you most proud?

NET Health is focused on eliminating the obesity which fuels the three major killers of our citizens: heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. NET Health spearheaded two successful initiatives to meet this goal. First, we collaborated with city partners to pass a smoke-free tobacco ordinance which prohibits tobacco use in bars and restaurants. Tyler was one of the first cities in Texas to enact such an ordinance to protect patrons and employees from first and secondhand smoke. The other successful initiative is “Fit City Tyler.” Fit City Tyler is a partnership between NET Health, the Tyler newspaper, media, businesses, and volunteers. The goal is simple; to help our residents become healthier, “one bite, one step, and one health-conscious decision at a time.” To achieve this goal, we implemented the “Lighten Up East Texas” program. “Lighten Up East Texas” offers prizes to encourage the community to lose weight over a four to five month period. In the first five years, participants have lost a collective 42,000 pounds.  I am so proud of my NET Health outstanding leadership team for making this possible and changing the health of our community for the better.

What is the biggest “lesson learned” you can share from your experience in local public health?

I’ve learned the key to success in public health, as in any profession, is relationships.  Building healthy relationships within a public health organization and out in the community is critical.  Relationships create the opportunities that allow for communities to thrive. This takes leaving the desk and getting out in the community, attending events, engaging in civic and volunteer work, and speaking with the media. Public health has a story to tell. Creating relationships will pave the road to effectively communicating the message that public health plays a vital role in every community.

What do you see coming down the pike? How are you preparing yourself and your health department for the future?

NET Health’s leadership team has determined visibility as the major focus of our strategic plan. Public health plays a vital role in the community but needs a familiar face to be effective. Citizens will be more receptive to a source they know when it comes to acting upon the education, information, and care we are providing. For instance, NET Health is working to help residents be proactive instead of reactive when it comes to their health. Oftentimes, society neglects the maintenance our bodies need to remain healthy, which can result in expensive treatment like medicine and hospitalization. To avoid that, our department is always thinking of ways we can be visible promoting the importance of preventative measures to keep our community healthy.

What changes do you hope to see in the field of public health?

I think public health officials should make time to be more engaged in their communities and push the value of public health for everyone. Oftentimes, public health is seen as something for only low-income residents, when in reality we’re working for everyone. It is important we dispel that misconception. Any member of our community can be affected by an outbreak if it is not properly contained. Restaurant safety standards impact entire communities. I believe it’s important to let the public know what we do for every person, what services we provide, and how we keep them healthy.

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

I learned about NACCHO when one of my staff members applied for the Model Practices Award in 2008, which we won following Hurricane Gustav. I decided to join my staff member at the NACCHO Annual conference in 2009 and became knowledgeable about the organization. I’ve been an active member ever since. On a national level, NACCHO plays a critical role as our public policy advocate and voice in legislative and political issues. NACCHO also makes it possible to collaborate and learn from peers, which has been an invaluable benefit to me personally and professionally.

What advice would you give to new LHD leaders?

Get involved with your local community and learn what concerns your residents and their needs. Then, you can develop a plan to best address those issues. Network with peers at the state and national level. That’s the best way to learn and share ideas and values.