Member Spotlight: Cara Christ

February 02, 2017|2:00 p.m.| ASTHO Staff

Cara Christ, MD, is director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, which is responsible for leading Arizona’s public health system, including responding to disease outbreaks, licensing health and childcare facilities, operating the Arizona State Hospital, and improving the overall health and wellness of all Arizonans.

Was there someone who influenced you to lead a health department?

My public health hero is one of our local legends, Dr. Bob England. He is one of the main reasons I am in this position today. I have known Dr. England, who is currently the local health officer for Maricopa County, for 20 years. At the time, he was the state epidemiologist who helped me with one of my virology projects in graduate school. Since then he has been a huge supporter, mentor, and friend—and I greatly value his public health judgment and advice to this day.

What other positions have you held at the public health department?

I have served at almost every level within our public health department. I have held the positions of infectious disease epidemiologist, medical director and bureau chief for epidemiology and disease control, assistant director of licensing services, and deputy director of public health.

What is your morning ritual?

With three kids ranging from two to nine years old, my mornings are like influenza, predictably unpredictable. They involve rising early to get myself ready before the kids, then tackling whatever comes my way in the morning. It’s hectic, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

What do you do to stay healthy?

I try to get as much activity as I can by playing with my kids. Whether it is going to the park to play Pokémon Go, playing with them in the swimming pool, or riding bikes, all of those minutes count towards my daily activity goals. The bonus is that I get to spend it with my kids!

Where is your favorite vacation spot?  

My family and I are avid Disney fans. I have my “Ducktorate” in Disney-style management from Disney University. On vacation, you can usually find us hanging out with Mickey Mouse at one of his theme parks.

Why is health important to you?

Health impacts all parts of life. It’s difficult to enjoy life when you aren’t feeling well. I am personally impacted by chronic disease, and I find I am much happier and more effective when I feel well and manage my chronic illness.

What are your favorite hobbies?

I enjoy photography, collecting Disney art, and swimming.

How did your career in public health begin?

From an early age I knew I wanted to work in public health. Even before I knew what public health was, I had an interest in being a disease detective. At a very young age, I enjoyed reading books such as Outbreak, The Andromeda Strain, and Level 4: Virus Hunters of the CDC. During graduate school, I was fortunate to work on a virology project with the state health department, and I was hooked. I started my official career in public health as an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Arizona Department of Health Services before I went to medical school. I loved my time at the department because it allowed me to help, protect, and improve the health of our entire state. After I finished my medical degree, I came back to the health department and worked as the state tuberculosis control officer and medical director for the bureau of epidemiology and disease. I also served as the assistant director for the division of public health licensing services. Before I was appointed director, I worked as deputy director for public health services. Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to work with amazing people, all dedicated to improving the public health of our communities throughout Arizona.

What do you love most about the public health work you do?

I chose a career in medicine because I wanted to help people live healthier lives. What drew me to public health was the ability to help people on a larger scale. As we know, our achievements in public health have a lasting impact on the overall health of our communities. During my time at the Arizona Department of Health Services, I’ve had the opportunity to work with our team to develop programs and implement new public health policies that keep people of all ages safe and healthy. I love that public health has the ability to improve the lives of everyone in Arizona. When you look at it from that perspective, there is not a more rewarding job than working in public health.     

What do you find most challenging about public health?

There is an unpredictability to public health, which is both exciting and challenging. Our priorities can change fast with the needs of the community. We use data to try to predict future needs to advance public health, which is highly successful in most cases. But there are many unpredictable aspects of public health, such as disease outbreaks and emerging issues that need our attention quickly. You have to be nimble to respond to these situations with staffing and funding, both of which can fluctuate from year to year. The key to making these adjustments fast is being part of a team that can be flexible and change course in an instant. I’m blessed to be surrounded by a dynamic and dedicated public health staff.   

What are your primary public health priorities?

One of our biggest priorities in Arizona—and the United States—is addressing the growing prescription drug epidemic. We know that far too many people are becoming addicted to prescription painkillers every year, and tragically many people are dying. This is a complex topic that involves public health agencies, insurance providers, the medical community, and dozens of community partners. We are taking swift action to work with all of our partners to find immediate and long-term solutions to this public health crisis. Another top priority is reducing the number of people who smoke in Arizona. We’ve set an ambitious but achievable goal of having the lowest adult smoking rate in the nation. We have made great progress in achieving this goal in the last few years because of our dynamic approach to providing resources to help people quit smoking for good. This is a goal we will continue vigorously working to achieve.

How has social media helped advance public health within your state?

The Arizona Department of Health Services utilizes several social media channels, which have become one of the primary ways we communicate with the public and media. Social media has changed the landscape of communication, and we work hard to stay current with the way people are sharing information. I write a daily blog where we promote our services, programs, priorities, and issues. We share these blog posts on Facebook and Twitter, and engage in several other social media channels, such as Instagram, Pinterest, and LinkedIn. We have a great communications team that helps us keep up with the latest trends in social media and identify the best way to reach our population. I also manage my own Twitter account, which allows me to have a direct line of communication to the people we serve.