Make the Most of NACCHO 2011: A Q&A with Robert Pestronk

Jul 18, 2011, 5:30 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth


The National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) will hold its annual conference, NACCHO Annual 2011, in Hartford Connecticut later this week. NewPublicHealth spoke with Robert Pestronk, M.P.H., executive director of NACCHO, about the sessions, conversations and issues he expects to be highlights of the meeting.

NPH: If you could be a fly on the wall at the convention center, what conversations would you most likely expect to hear during the course of the conference?

Robert Pestronk: Since this is the largest annual single gathering of local health department officials in the United States, people will be greeting one another and talking with one another about how the year has gone since they last saw their colleagues. They will be talking about some of their successes and some of their challenges–trading information about things that have and haven’t worked. I think that people will be sharing information about their own careers and where they’re headed and how they’re finding their job as a local health official. There will also be conversations about a number of presentations because the presentations have been designed in many respects to stimulate conversations among the attendees about things that are current and forward-looking in the worlds of local health departments.

NPH: How can attendees maximize the value of the time they spend at the meeting in addition to the conversations with colleagues?

Robert Pestronk: I think the best thing to do for any conference is to make sure you take a look at the program ahead of time and find the areas that are of interest to you–maybe pick a couple that you know nothing about in order to get some exposure to certain ideas and get those marked on your calendar so you know exactly where you want to go. Then, as the need arises-you can make adjustments to your schedule. But I think it’s very important to think about what’s most important to you ahead of time and to think about the colleagues that you might want to hear from who might be presenting.

NewPublicHealth: How many attendees are you expecting this year at the NACCHO Annual 2011?

Robert Pestronk: We’re expecting probably somewhere between 800 and 900 attendees at the conference. We feel that’s a really good attendance given the conditions that local health departments are facing across the country. And in some departments, restrictions have been placed on travel outside the state.

NPH: What are the key questions facing most health departments as the conference gets underway?

Robert Pestronk: I think the [major questions] are: What does their future hold? What will the departments look like five to ten years from now? This has to do with the recession that is passing through the country and hasn’t ended, and it has to do with the loss of federal, state, and local funds. It has to do with the decisions that are being made almost several times a year now about whether or not health departments can continue the kinds of programs they’ve been doing.

Other questions include, what makes the best sense given the limited resources that we have? And on top of that is the question of whether the resources that they have can actually be used for other, important purposes–because often they’ve been appropriated for a particular purpose and so the flexibility to make an adaptation is restricted.

NPH: Hartford is your host city. How is their health department doing this year?

Robert Pestronk: They’ve actually had very strong support from the mayor in the city of Hartford. Some of their recent successes are in the area of policy. On September 1st they will be starting with a new restaurant scoring system that has to do with some changes that were made in their state law recently. They will have a new trans-fat ban starting January 1, 2012. And the State Association of County and City Health Officials in Connecticut has been very helpful in promoting and in helping gain support for the policies that the city has recently adopted. But there have also been [challenges, such as] a loss of some federal funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for sexually transmitted disease programs. On the whole, I’d say the city has been doing well. It certainly has been doing better than many other local health departments and their policy successes are enviable. I congratulate them for getting that into place.

NPH: What are some new sessions this year and how did they come to be included in the NACCHO annual meeting?

Robert Pestronk: The work group at NACCHO that produces the annual meeting is comprised predominantly of local health officials. In addition to soliciting potential sessions from presenters, they also think about what’s going on in their own world. One session that should be of interest to people who are attending is a networking session that has to do with the new National Prevention Strategy. This is a new strategy, so this is an opportunity to hear about it and provide some response to it.

And a couple of years ago at the NACCHO Annual, we started presentations about Public Health Systems and Services Research so that local health officials can hear about the latest evidence and base their practice on evidence. In addition, there is a session on local health department wins. There’s a lot of challenge out there and yet there’s still a lot of success-and there’s an opportunity for colleagues to hear from health officials about what’s been going well and to learn from that. As a former local health official myself, I’ve often found that the greatest benefit of attending the annual NACCHO meeting was to find out from others who were further ahead in practice than I was, and to hear from them about how that had gone and to take the lessons they learned and adapt them into my own environment. I think this wins session is a big one. And finally, we’ve got a sharing session on local health departments and the economy and we will be hearing from colleagues who will be giving presentations on how they have adapted their own departmental work given the changes in resources that they have experienced over the last couple of years.

NPH: Are there key concepts such as Public Health Accreditation or Health Impact Assessments that you think attendees might want to bone up on in advance so they are better prepared?

Robert Pestronk: Certainly. The National Public Health Accreditation System is about to become operational. The applications will be received for the first time by the Public Health Accreditation Board this September, and there will be representatives and board members from the Public Health Accreditation Board in Hartford. I think it’s important for health officials who are thinking about applying for accreditation in the first round to look at those documents and to provide any reaction they have to them. We are still two months away. That’s not very long but people have observations to make about what they’ve read and those comments are always timely.

As for preparing for other topics, as a local health official I never found that I couldn’t understand what was being discussed, and that was true when I was a very new local health official. My mind was expanded and my thoughts about what I could be doing were expanded by sitting in the sessions. I don’t think anybody should be intimidated or decide not to go to a session because they don’t know anything about it. In fact, I think just the opposite. There are probably presentations that one knows nothing about and I think it’s a good idea to go to those sessions. You may turn out to know more than you thought you knew and you may also gain perspective or insight or new ideas about things that you could be doing.

Read previous Q&As with newsmakers and difference makers in public health.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.