Complexities of Public Health Government Practice: Q&A with Dornsife Professor James Buehler
February 18, 2016
James Buehler, MD, professor of Health Management and Policy in the Dornsife School of Public Health, returns to Drexel this quarter after serving as the Health Commissioner for the City of Philadelphia. In addition to his Health Commissioner experience, Dr. Buehler has worked at the federal, state, and local government levels, experiences that align with our school's focus on health in cities. He recently sat down with Katrina Obieta, MPH '17, and shared his thoughts on the experience of working on health at all government levels, on returning to teaching, and on the future of public health.
What was the best part of being the Philadelphia Health Commissioner?
I've been in public health government practice most of my career, especially at the federal level at CDC. What impressed me about working in a local health department is that there were areas of public health practice I thought I understood well, but it was humbling in many respects to understand the complexities of actually applying that in local practice. I've had a diverse career, but it was a tremendous opportunity to learn about the spectrum of public health practice in Philadelphia.
Are you looking forward to teaching? What kinds of classes will you be teaching?
Yes, I'm looking forward to teaching and I am going to start by teaching in the spring. The class will be on the relationship between federal public health agencies and state and local health departments and how they have different roles and responsibilities in helping each other achieve their missions.
What was it like working at the federal level?
Government is a bureaucracy and is an inherently political environment. You have to understand the politics, you have to understand the bureaucracy that you are a part of. You have to be patient and have a sense of humor because sometimes things take a little longer than you would like. The secret is to keep your eyes on your mission and what you are trying to accomplish and surround yourself with the best possible people that you can.
Do you have any advice for students who are about to graduate and looking into working in government or policy?
At some time in your career, it would be great to work at a local health department. Having worked at federal, state, and local levels, in many ways, I found that working at the local level was the most rewarding, particularly in a place like Philadelphia. People really take pride in what they do, they try the best they can, and they care about the patients, despite not being in the easiest environment to work in.
What are your thoughts on where the field of Public Health is going?
Public Health is pushing hospitals to think more about what happens to their patients once they walk out the door. What happens to a patient after treatment will depend on the environment the patient is going back to. More and more, especially after some provisions of the Affordable Care Act, health care providers are being pushed to be more engaged in providing support for people when they're back in communities. In other words, they are going to be thinking about the space where public health has originally worked in. So there will be new opportunities for collaboration between health care and public health.
Having worked for the CDC and as Health Commissioner, what are your thoughts on new diseases such as the Zika virus?
It's a reminder that nature always throws us curveballs, but this is why public health is important.