a conversation with Dobbs on Miss. Department of Health

Dr. Thomas E. Dobbs III was recently named the State Health Officer for the Mississippi Department of Health. Dr. Dobbs is a board-certified infectious diseases and internal medicine physician with extensive training in public health and epidemiology. He brings experience as a practicing physician along with an administrative background, as well as public health research and advocacy. Dr. Dobbs spoke with Sun reporter Nikki Rowell about his new role and the importance of public healthcare.


How are things going since being named health officer?

“It’s been very eventful. There is a lot going on and a lot to be done, but it has been great. I have a great team. There are few things more rewarding to me than public health work.”


What is the primary role of state health officer?

“The primary role is overseeing the various functions of the state Department of Health, but also overseeing county departments of health, WIC centers and all health programs’ licensure and regulatory components. Also, official directing efforts to improve health in Mississippi.”


How will your knowledge of infectious diseases and experience translate in this new role?

“Hopefully, the clinical experience, especially with some of our biggest infectious disease challenges being HIV and STDs will translate practically. Fortunately, I have a history with public health and private hospital and management experience, which should help us operate more effectively and efficiently.”


Summer is about here. What are the primary health concerns facing Mississippians during this period?

“We have a lot. Certainly, if we are thinking about what kills us, cardiovascular and cancer are at the top of the list. We really have to look at what’s killing us from a behavioral point of view, like smoking. Improving diets and exercise would have a remarkable effect on health and wellbeing.”


What would you encourage people to do to keep that in check?

“Certainly, avoiding unsafe behaviors such as smoking. Even engaging in moderately more healthy behaviors, like regular exercise, even if it is not a lot, and eating real food and avoiding processed and high sugar, high fat, pre-prepared foods. There is a ton to be done to stay healthy. These simple things make a huge difference.

“Approximately 40 percent of cancers and 80 percent of cardiovascular disease are due to lifestyle factors. The role of public health is to help individuals achieve healthy lifestyles, but also work from a policy level to make healthy living as easy a process as possible. Eighty percent of health is determined by things outside of healthcare. Although healthcare is extremely important, public health tries to look at that 80 percent piece to help people stay healthy and not just treat them when they’re sick.”


We do need to talk about Measles briefly. How many cases have been reported so far?

“Nationwide, over 700 cases have been reported, which has been the biggest outbreak in decades. We have not had any measles cases in Mississippi. Most have heard about the traveling case, but we have not had any cases come from those exposures so far. What is really important for that is the really high measles immunization rate.”


Do adults need additional vaccinations?

“It’s a good idea to check with your doctor if you think you’re under immunized. We work to ensure immunity among healthcare workers. Ongoing transmission in Mississippi would probably broaden those recommendations for adults.”


When an outbreak of Measles or other viruses occur, how does the Department of Health handle them?

“There is a ton of work that goes into that behind the scenes. A gargantuan effort. We will do everything we can to validate the diagnosis and ensure the safety of the infected persons. We also ensure that the infected or contagious person is isolated to prevent further spreading. We coordinate with other states on tracking down every possible contact to ensure that people who were exposed do not go on to infect others. Measles is kind of funny in that people are contagious for days before they’re symptomatic.”


What is the department’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year? What are those funds used for?

“We actually had a modest increase in funds. Although our budget from state funding is $62 million, about a third of that is pass-through money. It is given to us, but we are mandated to pass that money on to other entities. For example, some of that goes to UMMC for cancer and tobacco control. There are a lot of earmarks in our budget for non-profit organizations, as dictated by the legislature, that have health functions. There are a bunch of them. We are happy with the modest increase and appreciate the additional support.”


What will that increase allow the department to do?

“We will be able to do some additional efforts. We could certainly use more to do more. We are trying to ramp up a Hepatitis A vaccination campaign. There have been huge outbreaks in surrounding states, and we worry that it could affect Mississippi.”


What do you hope to accomplish with this campaign?

“The focus is prevention. Hepatitis A is a highly contagious virus passed from contaminated surfaces, like the Norovirus. There have been thousands of cases in Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas, primarily in folks who have drug issues or housing insecure. So, we want to focus immunization and surveillance in places with highest risk. It has spilled over into restaurants and other businesses, so that is a concern as well.”


I do want to talk about CONs (Certificate of Need laws). Several hospitals have attempted to add beds in South Madison County, but those plans have been rejected under CON rules. What are your thoughts on hospitals expanding to Madison County to meet the needs of the growing population?

“Certificate of Need is a construct as part of statutory responsibility. A health plan is in place to determine needs. People certainly have strong opinions about it. Currently, according to the state health plan, there is no additional need in Madison County, nor are there any pending CON applications.”


Do you think there is a need for change in the CON rules?

“We try to stay pretty neutral and follow the rules of the legislature and administer it as directed by the board of health. CON is extremely complicated, and the healthcare system itself is extremely complicated. There are certainly benefits and detriments of CON. We will strive to be fair and neutral adjudicates of the system.”


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