Member Spotlight: Health Director Dr. Muntu Davis Discusses the Social Determinants of Health and Public Health’s Focus Shifting from Infectious to Chronic Disease

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 Muntu Davis, MD, MPH, Director of the Alameda County Public Health Department in Oakland, CA. He is also a member of NACCHO’s Board of Directors. Below he shares how his health department works to address health disparities and the nation’s transition in public health priorities to address chronic disease.

Tell us about your career path in public health.

Although I went to the University of California at Los Angeles and received my bachelor’s in Spanish, I had a strong interest in medicine. Upon completion of my undergraduate degree, I attended the David Geffen School of Medicine and once there, I found it was very helpful that I had a Spanish-speaking background. Many of the patients I interacted with were native Spanish-speakers, so knowing the language helped tremendously. While in medical school, I traveled to Mexico for a summer internship and learned about the healthcare process in their hospitals and clinics. In my final year of residency in family medicine at Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital, I really garnered an interest in public health. After I completed my residency, I later participated in The California Endowment Scholars in Health Policy Fellowship and received my masters of public health (MPH) degree from the Harvard School of Public Health in 2003, which combined an MPH program and a fellowship in minority health policy.

When I came to Alameda County Public Health Department (ACPHD) in 2005, I started off as a Deputy Health Officer for Emergency Preparedness and Planning. In the wake of the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, I became an Alameda County Health Officer. Three years later, I accepted the position of Health Director at ACPHD and I’ve been here ever since.

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

One of the major highlights of my career was working in emergency preparedness. I was prompted to do regional coordination work for the city’s Readiness Initiative, which involved distributing large quantities of medicine in a short time period during the anthrax scenario. Working across other jurisdictions in the San Francisco Bay area and learning how they respond to emergencies to accomplish the same goal was something I really enjoyed. Preparing for H1N1 virus was another highlight of my career. We were the first county in California to have our paramedics give immunizations in support of the response to the H1N1 threat.

Additionally, I’m very proud of our healthcare services agency. The county was considering a $5 million housing bond and there were questions around who could be eligible to be helped by this bond. We explained how housing affected health and really advocated for having that eligibility align with Medicaid eligibility. Being able to conduct research on the social determinants of health and present that to decision-makers resulted in the county making those funds available to that population.

Public health is ever-changing and my job as health director is never the same each day. This field is extraordinarily meaningful, both to individuals who are the boots on the ground, and to those who influence policy in the county.

What challenges are you or your health department currently facing?

On the programmatic side, there is always the question of having enough funding. Over the years, we have seen an increase in demand the amount of people who need services. Working in this field, I have come to better understand the disparities in the Latino and African American communities and we have seen persistent health disparities. There is also the struggle of trying to get enough resources to address the most immediate need. The other side is how we can prevent those needs in the first place. Our health department services a population of about 1.6 million people and we have roughly 400 staff members. Our previous director made a point to put the “public” back in “public health.” We have made it our mission to physically go into the communities we serve and talk to the people because we ultimately work for them. We value their feedback. Oftentimes, policies are implemented with the help of the public’s voice.

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

I think one of the biggest changes I’ve seen since I began working in public health is the shift in focus to chronic disease. If you look back several decades ago, infectious disease was at the forefront of public health. The public had to worry about things that we now have vaccines, immunizations, and other medicine for such as norovirus, tuberculosis, and cholera. Although chronic disease is receiving much more attention and is involved in the dialogue about the social determinants of health, there is still much work to be done to prevent the leading cause of death in the United States.

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

We are in the process of ensuring that our programs are thinking through what we call a “health equity framework.” For instance, if a program is working with data related to asthma, they should be able to recognize those conditions inside of a community that are putting them at risk for having higher rates of asthma. Understanding which organizations have the ability to shape those conditions that are putting more people at risk and trying to work with those organizations is imperative. Partnerships have been proven to be extremely important and effective in addressing health inequities and disparities. Sharing healthcare data and being able to share perspectives across healthcare organizations helps to shape conversations that lead to better health outcomes.

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

I have been a member of NACCHO since 2005. I have always appreciated NACCHO’s toolkits and Model Practices. They have been great resources for me and for our programs. I also enjoy seeing others being recognized for their work in this field. Later on, I came to realize the power of hearing other members of the organization speak about national issues that impact health and shape perspectives. That collective voice is important.

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

I love to travel and get away to experience other cultures. A few places I’ve traveled to include Mali, France, and Thailand. More recently, I have been traveling domestically to such places like Georgia and Alabama. A lot of my free time is also spent hanging out with my eight-year-old son, Sebastian.

For more interviews in the series, visit NACCHO Voice Member Spotlight.