For the second time in just 15 years, home-grown and nationally respected public health physician Ed Thompson agreed to another dance as interim State Health Officer (SHO).
His initial interim post started in December 1992 upon the retirement of Dr. Alton B. Cobb, who at the time was one of the nation’s longest-serving public health executives. That interim appointment ended in May 1993 when Thompson began a six-year term as permanent SHO. The former 10-year state epidemiologist served two terms and left Mississippi in 2002.
This time, Thompson took the short-term, quick-fix position July 2, within the first hour of the totally reconstituted State Board of Health’s first meeting. Legislation in the 2007 session eliminated the previous Board of Health, deleted the SHO position, and prescribed new direction for a revamped Board and Department of Health.
The “sunset” law effectively unseated Dr. Brian Amy, who walked into the top public health post in October 2002, concurrent with Thompson’s moving to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention in Atlanta as chief of public health practice and deputy director for public health services.
“According to the legislation, the new Board of Health could not officially meet until after June 30,” explained Dr. Lucius Lampton, chairman of the 2007 State Board of Health before its demise and immediately re-elected on an eight-to-three vote. “The new Board plans to hit the ground running.”
Selecting someone as qualified and competent as Thompson is a great first step, Lampton pointed out.
“Not only is he one of the best public health minds in the country, but he has specific knowledge of the agency and Mississippi’s health needs,” said Lampton. “Many of the current failings of the agency are in areas of his expertise, especially epidemiology and communications. He already knows many of the employees on a first name basis. So his leadership will not be disruptive, but rather like an old trusted friend returning to get one out of the ditch.
“As Edward Hill said, ‘we’ve got a big uphill climb ahead.’ However, I feel much more comfortable and confident about that uphill climb with Ed Thompson leading the troops and with a Board as accomplished and committed as the one we have now. The state needs its best public health minds leading us at this difficult period, and we’ve got the best and the brightest on board. I’m very optimistic about the future of public health in Mississippi.”
Rebuilding the trust of both the Department employees and Mississippians will not be something that will or even should be easily achieved with one right decision or one good meeting, Lampton admitted.
“We need to make many right decisions over many months,” he said. “And it must be clear to the agency employees that this Board is not about self-interest or politics, but rather focused only on protecting the public health of all Mississippians.”
With Thompson temporarily in place, Board members chose SHO headhunter Korn/Ferry International, founded on executive searches and having worked with candidates and clients in conducting more than 100,000 senior-level searches worldwide.
“The Board will give input to the firm about what we want in a permanent officer,” Lampton affirmed. “A special committee of the Board will be formed to assist in this search. The firm will bring us the candidates, and the Board, not the firm, will make the final selection, with input from our interim state health officer. Ed can help ensure that this Board selects a permanent officer who is experienced, respected nationally, and who has an established record in public health. This may be the most important thing Ed does as the interim leader.”
Korn/Ferry — based in some 69 offices across North America, Europe, Asia/Pacific and Latin America — has worked locally for the University of Mississippi Medical Center, College Board, and Raytheon Aerospace.
Among Board members, Carl Nicholson, CPA, of Hattiesburg has personal knowledge of Korn/Ferry, one of two firms who sought the search job. The Board expects about a four-month search and probably will meet monthly during that time. They set Wednesday, August 8, at 10 a.m. as their next meeting.
“We’ll be meeting monthly until further notice,” said Lampton. “The Board consensus is that we have so much to accomplish that quarterly meetings are inadequate to get the job done. I’m impressed this is a Board willing to put their shoulders to the plow if necessary for the department.”
Since the Board was established in 1877, it has been blessed with great leaders, Lampton pointed out, noting Waller Leathers, Felix Underwood, and Alton Cobb, who “began and continued a tradition of public health excellence recognized on the national level. My hope is that this Board will bring the department back to its rightful place as one of the finest public health agencies in the country.”
Lampton admitted the Board’s challenges are “many and complex.”
“We’ll need to impact the negative trends emerging in the state, from increasing infant mortality to tuberculosis to syphilis,” he said. “Many of the sections within the agency will need to be rebuilt, like epidemiology. Our public health lab is a disgrace, and we must build a lab immediately that sets the standards for all others in the state. Finally, we need to look at the condition of public health on the front line and in the field in the state. That is where we have suffered losses that impact those statistics everyone hears about. This Board will take a close look at each of the districts in the state to familiarize ourselves with the problems they face on the local level.”
A long-time public health historian and advocate, Lampton cited “many unsung heroes” who helped hold the agency together during this crisis period.
“Our district health officers deserve special recognition and should be praised for their leadership and commitment to their districts, despite significant turmoil, staff reductions, and changes,” he said, noting that Alfio Rausa, Mary Gayle Armstrong, Robert Travnicek, Clay Hammack, Rebecca James, and Robert Trotter “all shouldered a terrific burden during this period.
“And there are countless others, both at the central office in Jackson and on the field across the state, who performed their duties and fought the good fight for public health, despite terrific stress and obstacles. One of the most important things we can do on the Board now is to create an environment at the agency where we allow our talented employees to perform their jobs, unfettered by the micromanagement of those less qualified.”
To provide Thompson with the authority he needs to act decisively, Dr. Edward Hill offered two motions: “That the Board of Health authorize the interim SHO to assign or reassign duties and responsibilities to individual staff on an interim basis as necessary to most effectively carry out the responsibilities of the agency. And that although any substantial reorganization of the agency requires prior approval of the Board, the Board of Health authorizes the interim SHO to make reasonable minimal interim changes in organizational structure as necessary to carry out the functions of the agency.” Members unanimously adopted both. “Certainly, the interim SHO will be under much scrutiny, especially by those not in sympathy with the current change of leadership,” Lampton explained. “I think our action will give the latitude to Ed to get the job done in an efficient manner, without causing disruption.”
Hill, also president of the World Medical Association and a practicing physician in Tupelo, said, “I think this is an excellent Board, and we assure the citizens and the medical community of Mississippi that we will be diligent, prudent, and very professional in actions and will strive for complete transparency in our oversight responsibilities as well as any potential conflict of interest. We want to re-establish a solid sense of credibility and respect from the public and would ask the employees of the Department of Health for patience as well as trust as we begin our work. We must earn that trust as quickly as possible. From the medical community, we would ask for support and even help if they were called upon to assist our efforts.”
Dr. Dwalia S. South, a family physician in Ripley and president of the Mississippi State Medical Association (MSMA), said the statewide organization “fully supports the new Board of Health and has every confidence that the Board will lead the Department in the direction of improved services to Mississippians and effective response to public health concerns.
“Physicians across the state are keenly aware of serious health threats addressed daily by the Department of Health and are anxious to see the Board assess the alarming rise in infant mortality, outbreaks of tuberculosis and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. The revival of the Health Department is crucial to reducing these and other public health dangers. Physicians are also anxious to see the Department emphasize long-term health priorities.
“The physicians of MSMA are eager to work with the Board of Health to restore, promote and protect the health of the citizens of Mississippi. The appointment of Dr. Ed Thompson as interim State Health Officer is an important first step.”
South described Thompson as “an outstanding leader . . . uniquely prepared to carry out the directives of the Board.” She also mentioned, “Mississippi has a wealth of experience in the district health physicians, and we are encouraged that Dr. Thompson and the Board will be able to provide the resources needed to quickly respond to local public health issues.”
Thompson, who earned an MD degree at the University of Mississippi and a master’s in public health degree at Johns Hopkins University, said the Board’s “regaining credibility” dominates their agenda. Also chairman of the department of preventive medicine at UMC, he called together specific staff immediately upon the Board’s adjournment to quickly grasp the gravity of problems related to huge increases in tuberculosis, sexually transmitted diseases, and factors that contribute to infant mortality.
A retired district health officer expressed hope: “It will take months to clean up the mess. Just getting a handle on the finances will be a formidable task … and the clinical part may never be repaired.”
In addition to Lampton, Hill, and Nicholson, members of the reconstituted Board of Health, effective July 1, 2007, are Dr. Geraldine Chaney of Jackson; Elayne Hayes-Anthony, PhD, of Madison; Albert “Randy” Hendrix, PhD, of Ovett; Dr. Alfred E. McNair of Moss Point (vice chairman); Dr. Kelly Segars of Iuka; Sammie Ruth Rea, RN, of Madison; Ronnie Robertson of Greenwood; and Ellen Williams, RN, of Senatobia.