Member Spotlight: Abinash Achrekar

May 23, 2019|10:40 a.m.| ASTHO Staff

Abinash AchrekarIn 2019, Abinash Achrekar, MD, became deputy secretary of the New Mexico Department of Health after serving as interim chief of cardiology at the University of New Mexico. He is immediate past-president of New Mexico’s American Heart Association. As deputy secretary, Achrekar participates in ASTHO matters on the department’s behalf. In this interview, Achrekar discusses his move from cardiology to state government, policy goals for the agency, and how a mobile unit is connecting asylum seekers along the U.S. southern border with health services.

What was the experience or motivating factor that compelled you to become a state health official?
I’m originally from California, but I have been in New Mexico since 2002. I was initially interested in infectious disease—that’s what drew me to New Mexico, the infectious disease aspect of being on the frontier. But I ended up in cardiovascular medicine, and that's primarily for public health reasons. The number of individuals who succumb to cardiovascular disease far outnumbers those who die from infectious disease, especially in developed countries. As a cardiologist, I can put a heart stent in and get a patient on medicine that makes their heart stronger, but the fact remains: 80 percent of cardiovascular disease is preventable. That’s the sort of change that led me to public health.

Was there someone who influenced you to lead a health department?
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. I have known her for close to a decade. She found a way, in this very same position, to advocate for the public through policies as well as programmatic change. With New Mexico ranking poorly across many health indices, I saw an opportunity for real change.

What is your morning ritual?
I live in Albuquerque, about 50 miles away from the state capital in Santa Fe, where the department is located. I take a train between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. I'm on that train at about 6:15 a.m. in the morning and I return around 6:30 in the evening. It’s nice to zone out a little, get some work done, and even catch up on Netflix while the train is travelling through the desert.

What do you do to stay healthy?
I used to do a lot more before I spent so much time commuting. It’s hard, but I run two or three times a week and cross train. I’ve also started eating healthier since I don't have as much time to exercise. I've really altered my diet by decreasing carbohydrate intake , which gives me an energy boost.

What is the best part of your week?
As a cardiologist, every day was different. There was no specific routine, you worked continuously. This is the first true office job I’ve had in 20 years. So now, the best part of the week for me is the weekend, when I can see my family—my wife and my son—and spend quality time with them.

How is your state helping to build healthier, more resilient communities? Describe any steps you are taking in general or as part of the 2019 ASTHO President’s Challenge.
I was really surprised when I got to the department of health. There’s a survey we do that looks at risk and resiliency among youth ages 12-18. It comes out every two years. The data is a stark reminder of the despair high school students face. The amount of depression, suicide ideation, and reported suicide attempts in the survey astounded me. Collecting data on diseases of despair and acting on it is the only way to truly address resiliency. That is something I am focused on.

Healthy public policy is important to you. Can you talk a little about this?
A lot of the policy goals I have in mind are probably similar to those across the country. Addressing diseases of despair, as mentioned, is super important to me, but it's beyond just the opioid crisis. We’ve made real strides in New Mexico with respect to decreasing opioid-related overdose deaths, becoming a model for the nation. Our biggest problem in New Mexico related to diseases of despair is actually alcohol. The rates in New Mexico are almost three times higher than the rest of the country. This, in part, has to do with New Mexico’s disenfranchised population, as well as culturally specific areas where alcoholism has been generational. That’s something we need to address from a healthy policy perspective.

What do you find most challenging about public health?
I am still very naive in this new role of mine. But I’m using this naivety as a benefit. Having never worked in state government, I am able to traverse some of its challenges simply by making honest errors—and no one really blames me because I don't fully know the rules yet. I’m going to see how long I can keep it up, saying I’m just a country doctor.

What do you love most about the public health work you do?
One of the things I’m most proud of is the migrant mobile health unit we began in Las Cruces, one of New Mexico’s southern border cities, which sees a lot of asylum seekers dropped off by customs, border patrol, and ICE on a daily basis. These migrants are now being sent to Albuquerque through the migrant mobile health unit we created. We have something like 3,000 volunteers providing medical health screenings in both Las Cruces and Albuquerque, which has been inspiring. I love what we've done so far. But there’s more work to do!