Faces of Public Health: Mary Selecky

Oct 28, 2011, 8:54 PM, Posted by

Mary Selecky Mary Selecky, Washington State Department of Health

Mary Selecky, Secretary of Health for the Washington State Department of Health is one of the longest standing state health officials in history. NewPublicHealth caught up with her at last week’s Association of State and Territorial Health Officials Annual Meeting to talk about her tenure in governmental public health, her advice for new health officials and who she’s worked with along the way, even beyond the traditional public health realm.

NewPublicHealth: What was your favorite session at ASTHO?

Mary Selecky: It was really important for us to have that session [with Andy Goodman] about story telling because we get a little too myopic and academic—and we really do need to tell this public health story, especially in these tough economic times.

NPH: How have you seen the current economy impact governmental public health? Is it the worst that you’ve seen it during your years in the field?

Mary Selecky: I’ve had the fortune of being in public health for 32 years; I learn something new every day and there’s always an opportunity and a challenge. Our state wasn’t able to buy vaccines for all kids—yet it presented an opportunity for us to sit down with different partners and our insurance company recognized that the partnership with government was a win-win. But I think this is a scary time for public health because what we in the field think of as core public health functions—making sure the water and food is safe, making sure kids are immunized and that we follow-up on the community’s health—aren’t going to be funded the same way. We have to let go of the old ways we’ve been doing something while we protect our successes. We have new challenges where we have to figure out how to take those on. So we really have to figure out how to do our business differently.

NPH: What does the future of public health look like in terms of the issues you see dominating our discussions over the new few years, besides budget?

Mary Selecky: The health department of the future is not going to look like we do today. When you look across the country, we all look a little different because our community needs are a little different. But we all have something in common: we’re looking at the health status in the whole community, population and state. I think what is going to be different is that rather than us providing a service, we’ll be the ones to direct individuals and make sure that things are taken care of in the community.

NPH: What types of community partners need to come to the table in order to improve health outcomes?

Mary Selecky: I think of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and their recently released Community Transformation Grants. For those you need people at the table that reflect what your community looks like— not just the thought leaders but the action people who are willing to give their time, talents and voices to do something in the community and identify with one another the issue they want to change. For instance, if it’s that people can’t buy fruits and vegetables within a twenty block radius in the city, we need the grocery stores to agree with us that that’s a problem. When you don’t include those folks it will slow you down when you move into implementation.

NPH: You’re one of the longest standing state health officials in history—how have you survived through all of the changes in government?

Mary Selecky: I worked in local public health for 20 years and for more than 40 county commissioners; in those circumstances I learned how to communicate in a way that’s flexible and meets people where they’re at. When I became a state health official my colleagues reminded me that it’s a bit more political so just watch the ground you walk on. You have to pick your issues right and it’s almost like you have to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em. My suggestion to anyone on how to survive is to never get ahead of your governor— make sure you’re in step.

NPH: According to a 2009 social network analysis of state health officials and mentors, you were identified as having the most number of connections to others in the field. Why is that important?

Mary Selecky: I learned very early on that no one can do anything alone because none of us has the capacity to do it. I had a great mentor who said you need to be out there and connected with things outside of the health department if we’re going to make a difference in our jobs. And it’s very easy to remember your first crisis and realize you had no idea where to turn, so if I can play the yentil and connect a colleague to someone that can help then it feels like I’m really helping the public health system.

NPH: What’s your advice for the newest state health officials?

Mary Selecky: Put one foot in front of the other and just keep on walking. Don’t try to run the marathon, because this is really about the learning opportunity. As you find yourself in unknown territory, pick your head up and figure out who you can get to help you to navigate that territory. My colleague Faye Bosman reminded us that you have to pick your priority, live your priority and make a difference while you’re there. And that’s the best advice I could give anyone else.

>>Read more ASTHO Annual Meeting coverage here.

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